Some people may be religious about their sports, but to Falls Church local Bob Ritter, real religion has no place on Falls Church-Kiwanis Little League’s baseball fields.
Ritter has begun circulating a petition as “Little Leaguers for Religious Freedom.” It aims to remove religious language from the Falls Church league’s pledge and opening ceremonies.
So far, Ritter, who works as a civil rights attorney for the American Humanist Association in Washington, D.C., has clocked in somewhere near 20 hours outside of league games to gather signatures, setting up tables outside the ball fields.
“Every time I put the table out several feet or more from a sidewalk so I wouldn’t interfere with anybody’s movement,” Ritter explained in an e-mail. “I was also not aggressive in seeking people to sign the petition. By that I mean, I did not solicit people in or near the stands. I waited quietly for them to come to the table.”
Ritter told the News-Press that the petition has gained over 30 signatures, including members of the league’s Board of Directors, which will ultimately decide whether to accept Ritter’s petition at their September general meeting.
Ritter said public feedback at the sporting events has been generally positive, with support coming from parents and those attending the games.
Several children have signed the petition, as well, he said, cautioning that he was reluctant to have children sign, but that if they were insistent, Ritter had “their parents explain to them the nature of the petition.”
On the other hand, some game attendees have expressed their disagreement with Ritter’s petition with a degree of colorful language.
“Someone told me I was going to hell,” Ritter said. Another person threatened physical violence if Ritter approached any children.
Ritter, an assistant coach on a league team and whose son, Vincent, is a first-year player, was present for the opening ceremonies held at Westgate Park in Falls Church last April.
During the event, Ritter said a Methodist preacher was invited to the field for a religious invocation, and the children then recited the “Little League Pledge,” which contained the phrase, “I trust in God.”
While he recognizes the league is privately owned, Ritter said the league “is a secular organization” and the presence of religion “interferes with the ability to teach your child” and fails to recognize “Falls Church’s religiously diverse community.”
“Falls Church has a broad religious community of Catholics, Buddhists, Jews and Muslims,” he said. “Everyone doesn’t have the same idea of God, or believes in God.” Ritter identifies himself as an atheist.
The reaction from members of the Board of Directors, however, in particular current board president Michael Deeley, has been cold, Ritter said.
At one game where Ritter was gathering signatures and had spoken to several board members, he said Deeley approached and asked him to cease talking to board members.
“I told him that I couldn’t promise him that,” Ritter said, adding that Deeley has refused to talk or “face me” at subsequent league events where Ritter has set up a table.
Despite reaching out to board members via e-mail, Ritter said that reception has been largely muted. “I received one e-mail back that asked me to ‘stop spamming.'”
Ritter said he will continue to work on the petition “through proper channels” by himself, seeking support from the business community that sponsors the league.
He does not rule out, however, the possibility of outside help. “It takes so much energy for one person,” Ritter explained. “If I don’t get to bring it before the board, how do I proceed? In the long run, it might be possible to go to some national organization to join their call to ask the Little League [to remove religious language].”
Cheryl McMillen, one of the petition’s signees and a former president of the Falls Church league, was unavailable for comment, as were several board members when contacted regarding the petition.
Deeley, however, offered a reply in an e-mail to the News-Press:
“I believe Mr. Ritter as a U.S. citizen has the right to state his opinion on this subject,” Deeley said. “As a private organization, under Little League International, [the Falls Church-Kiwanis Little League] has traditionally recited the Little League Pledge and invited individuals from various denominations over the years to provide an invocation at Opening Day. Our board has voted in favor of continuing this tradition in the future.”
Deeley continued by saying that despite finding it “extremely disappointing that a parent would attempt to cut off the funding” of the Little League, he defends Ritter’s “right as an American to discuss his opinion with our sponsors.”
Ritter defended his petition as a fight to protect religious plurality in the league, and for those who do not express any religious views: “Some people believe religion has to be in their entire life, that it has to be in baseball as a duty to their deity,” he said. “Others see it as a threat to religious beliefs. If there is a single universal rule, it’s to treat others like you’d like to be treated.”
Ritter added, “I wouldn’t want someone to give an invocation saying there is no God. I just want the Little League to treat my son by the Golden Rule, to treat him as they would want to be treated.”