Todd Starnes of Fox News has dedicated himself to finding cases of Christians facing persecution. Starnes recently reported that the military is deliberately blocking access to a Baptist website and may court-martial Christian soldiers, and alleged that a school in New York is forcing girls to kiss one another. However, these three incidents were all completely false.
On Sunday, Starnes filed another report on how a high school track team in Texas “was disqualified from competing in the state championships because one of the runners made a gesture thanking God after he crossed the finish line.”
“Derrick Hayes, the anchor of the Columbus High School 4×100 relay team had just crossed the finish line when he raised his finger to the sky,” Starnes writes, “thanking the Lord for winning the race that would send them to the state finals.
His article was based on the claims of the athlete’s father, and other outlets picked up the story as well.
Gov. Rick Perry wrote a letter to the University Interscholastic League demanding an investigation:
According to press reports, the student's father, K.C. Hayes, has been widely quoted as saying the student was pointing to the heavens to thank God.
In his letter, Perry said he would “not tolerate the suppression of religious freedom anywhere.”
“It is unconscionable that a student athlete could be punished for an expression of religious faith or that an act of faith could disqualify an athlete in a UIL competition,” Perry said.
He urged the UIL to “investigate this incident thoroughly and take whatever action is necessary to ensure protection of religious freedom and expression at UIL competitions.”
As the Texas Freedom Network has pointed out, Religious Right groups such as the Liberty Institute and Liberty Counsel both jumped on the story, as did Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Attorney General Greg Abbott.
But much like the student who was supposedly given detention for praying in school when he was actually disciplined for fighting, the Texas athlete wasn’t waving his finger to thank God and he wasn’t even disqualified for the gesture he made at the finish line.
The student was actually disqualified for inappropriate behavior towards the referee, and he and his dad now admit that the incident had nothing to do with religious expression.
According to the UIL press release:
Over the course of the investigation, the UIL interviewed several eyewitnesses and reviewed video of the race. Additionally, the UIL spoke to the involved parties. The UIL has concluded the investigation and has found no evidence to suggest that the disqualification took place as a result of the student-athlete expressing religious beliefs. The basis for the disqualification was due to the student-athlete behaving disrespectfully, in the opinion of the local meet referee.
Based on the UIL’s investigation, the student athlete raised his hand and gestured forward at the conclusion of the 4x100-meter relay. The meet official approached the student-athlete in an effort to warn him of a possible disqualification should that behavior continue. In the opinion of the official, the student reacted disrespectfully. Based on his reaction, the student-athlete was subsequently disqualified. Any decision to disqualify a student-athlete at any track meet must be upheld by the head meet referee. The meet official and the meet referee conferred, and the disqualification was upheld on-site. At no point during the discussions surrounding the disqualification at the meet was the issue of religious expression raised by any parties.
The UIL’s investigation also revealed that all coaches involved were notified prior to the regional meet that any gestures in violation of the National Federation of State High School Associations track and field rule against unsporting behavior would be grounds for disqualification. Coaches were instructed to discuss this with their student-athletes prior to all races.
To assist the UIL in its investigation, the student-athlete’s parents submitted a letter stating that their son’s religious freedoms were not violated. “In looking back at the conclusion of the 4x100 race, we realize that Derrick could have handled the win in a different manner,” KC and Stacey Hayes said in the letter. “It was not our intention to force the issue that our son’s religious freedom was violated. Nor do we feel that way now. After discussing this with our son, we have come to the conclusion that his religious rights were not violated.”
The student-athlete who was disqualified also submitted a letter during the investigation stating: “Although I am very thankful for all God has given me and blessed me with, on Saturday, April 27, 2013 at the Regional Track Meet in Kingsville, TX, my actions upon winning the 4x100 relay were strictly the thrill of victory. With this being said, I do not feel my religious rights or freedoms were violated.”