Recent news reports have said Pastor Mike Keahbone and members of Oklahoma City, Cherokee Hills were no longer welcome to practice their faith in public. According to Keahbone, “That’s not the case.”
The Putnam City School District received a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) in Wisc., stating the school district could face legal action because the Putnam City High School football team had a “non-school adult” leading prayers with the team. Keahbone has been identified as the team’s voluntary chaplain, which according to FFRF is illegal for him to hold such a position.
He confirmed he did lead the team in prayer before some games, but it was not on a consistent basis. He also made clear he and church members have been supporting Pirates Football the last couple of seasons by attending games, providing postgame meals to the team and building relationships with players and their families. And this will continue.
Keahbone first heard about FFRF’s allegation when he received an email from Mike Berry of First Liberty Institute, a well-known law firm involved in defending religious liberty cases. Berry made Keahbone aware that the pastor’s name came up in a possible lawsuit.
“It was kind of a scary email to get because I had not had one like that before,” Keahbone said.
Keahbone met with some attorneys who are Cherokee Hills members and confirmed First Liberty’s reputation as a trusted law firm. From there, Keahbone spoke with Berry and discussed the proper way to respond to FFRF’s accusation, which included meeting with Putnam City school officials, evaluating the best way for Keahbone and Cherokee Hills to continue supporting the football team and making sure they are “above reproach.”
“We made some adjustments and got to work on that together,” Keahbone said about meeting with school officials. “It wasn’t something that was forced on them or forced on us. It was something we all thought was a good way to handle this to make sure we are not wounding any kids or making them feel uncomfortable, so we made some changes.”
Keahbone clarified that if there would be a prayer observance with the team, it was going to be student-led. He also reiterated Cherokee Hills will continue supporting Putnam City football, especially with building relationships with players and helping meet needs the players and their families may have.
“Ninety-nine percent of what we do is completely unaffected by what has happened,” Keahbone said. “We are going to honor the law, honor the school, honor whatever boundaries that we are given. But there’s no law against loving people. There’s no law against loving our community, and we’ll continue to do that.”
As far as those affiliated with the school, Keahbone said everybody has been supportive of what Cherokee Hills has been doing.
“We have not had a single complaint from anyone in the school,” he said, “not any students, not any parents, not any teachers or coaches. The complaint was outside of our district. To this day, no one has complained to the administration. They have not received one complaint.”
Many also have publicly criticized the school district, but Keahbone said such complaints are misguided.
“I think something that people are missing is the school has been awesome,” he said. “The administration, executive level and local level, has been wonderful and very kind to us. We understand they have a job to do, and so we submit to that authority, and we’re happy to do it because we want to maintain our relationship with them.”
Many positives have happened since Cherokee Hills started supporting the Putnam City football team. Keahbone said the church was able to provide Christmas for families who have gone multiple years without observing the birth of Christ. He found out some families were without electricity, and Cherokee Hills made it possible to turn the power back on in their homes.
A mother of a football player was travelling long distance for work, and Cherokee Hills offered her a custodial job at the church, which is closer to her home.
Another way the church has blessed the football team is through hosting the Pirates’ awards banquet. Keahbone said many players were unable to attend the postseason event in the past because families couldn’t afford to pay admission. Of the approximate 80 players on the team, Keahbone stated about 30 showed up to the banquet.
This past year, Cherokee Hills hosted a catered barbecue meal and invited everybody affiliated with the team at no cost, including as many family members who could attend. Keahbone said more than 300 people were there.
“It was awesome,” Keahbone said about the banquet. “The coaches loved it. The people loved it, and they’re excited to do it again.”
Keahbone said Cherokee Hills is not just involved with the football team and the high school. They have a relationship with nearby Rollingwood Elementary School. He said his wife Jennifer serves breakfast for Rollingwood teachers every Friday.
For Keahbone and Cherokee Hills, this is about relationship building in the church’s community, and if they discover needs that they can meet, they will do it out of love for people in their community.
“People have asked me, ‘Doesn’t it make you mad?’ I’m not mad at Freedom From Religion,” Keahbone said. “They are looking out for people who may have been put in an uncomfortable position. They are thinking about that kid as passionately as I’m thinking about these kids who don’t have electricity. The difference is that I have real relationships with these families and these kids. They have a theoretical relationship… not connected to a person.
“I would hope that if they were in our community and saw the same needs, they would join us in helping meet those needs, even if they don’t believe what we believe.”