A top legal team is asking high-school athletic officials in North Carolina to explain how they will ensure referees don’t violate student athletes’ religious rights after a wrestler was penalized for a two-second acknowledgement of God prior to a match.
In a letter, David A. Cortman and other attorneys in the Alliance Defending Freedom told the North Carolina High School Athletics Association it has “a constitutional duty to protect students’ First Amendment right to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.”
The letter was addressed to NCHSAA board members Allison Sholar and Davis Whitfield regarding the referee’s penalty against junior wrestler Nicholas Fant in the 220-pound weight class at a Feb. 13 match in the first round of the state playoffs.
“We do not believe that the NCHSAA fulfilled that duty in this case and we find the comments made by Mr. Whitfield in support of the NCHSAA referee’s actions deeply troubling,” said the ADF letter.
ADF has given the North Carolina group until March 6 to answer whether it will take steps “to ensure that students’ right to express their faith at school athletic events is respected in the future.”
Fant, a Wake Forest-Rolesville High School student, was penalized after he “jogged to the center of the mat and dropped to one knee for two-seconds of prayer before the commencement of the match.”
“Fant had engaged in this practice all season long without incident,” ADF said. “A referee … gave Fant a warning for allegedly stalling the match, even though Fant arose before the referee finished relaying the call. This warning later contributed to Fant losing a point.”
ADF said it believes “the actions of the NCHSAA-affiliated referee violated Fant’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.”
New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow, known for “Tebowing” before his games, has made brief prayers by athletes the subject of much discussion.
“Penalizing two seconds of prayer while allowing two seconds of waving at mom or shaking hands can only mean one thing: religious expression has been penalized, and that’s not constitutional,” Cortman said. “All sorts of activity are routinely allowed at athletic events, but when something is religious, suddenly it’s a problem for the NCHSAA.”
He said the organization’s explanation that the penalty was for delaying the match “doesn’t make sense.”
“Other wrestlers take two seconds to wave or shake hands, and those things are never penalized,” he said.
The letter explains that the U.S. Supreme Court has long held that students in school as well as out of school are “persons” under the Constitution, “possessed of fundamental rights which the state must respect.”
“Fant’s kneeling for a two-second prayer before the commencement of his match was obviously not some sort of delay tactic, but a genuine expression of religious devotion that has been commonly practiced by athletes for decades,” ADF told the school group.
Fox News earlier reported there was disagreement even among association officials on the topic.
Whitfield told Fox News the referee was right.
“By rule, the official was well within his rights to issues a stall warning.”
A wrestling official, however, had another opinion.
David Culbreth of the Southeastern Wrestling Officials Association said, “David Culbreth believes in God, and on my mat – God gets two seconds.”