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Ethan Gabel, a math teacher at Kirksville High School in Missouri since 2012 and the head coach of the Boys and Girls Cross Country teams since 2016, won’t be returning in the latter role next season after Christians interpreted his satirical tweets to mean he wanted to impose Satanism upon students.

The chaos began in late June after the Supreme Court handed down the Bremerton decision. The right-wing majority said that high school football coach Joe Kennedy had every right to conduct performative, coercive Christian prayers at midfield after games despite all the evidence showing how his attention-seeking stunts were harming students on the team. In response to the ruling, Gabel jokingly tweeted about how he was going to follow suit and inject some Satanism onto his Cross Country athletes.

He said things like, “Why, yes. I will be praying to Satan around your children” and “I should be able to sacrifice a goat to Lucifer after a cross country meet this year!”

In another tweet, he said Christian nationalists were opening the door for math teachers like himself to end class with a “Hail Satan.”

He was joking, of course.

Gabel doesn’t actually believe in Satan or Satanism. He doesn’t want to push any of his personal beliefs on his students or athletes (and there’s no evidence that he ever has). He was just trying to make a point: It was an awful SCOTUS decision and the result would likely have gone a different way if the coach in question wasn’t promoting Christianity. There was a double standard!

But about a week later, screenshots of his tweets began spreading online. Christians in the community were outraged that Gabel, a public school coach, was openly talking about how Satanism would be spread on his team. (They were inadvertently proving Gabel’s point about hypocrisy and Christian privilege.)

A number of the people sharing posts like the one above took Gabel literally. They missed the satire. They thought he wanted to take his frustration with the ruling out on the students when the truth was the complete opposite.

Gabel later posted a public statement trying to calm people down. He explained the joke. He said he agreed that of course it would be wrong for a coach to push Satanism on students, just as it was wrong to do it with Christianity. He wasn’t going to sacrifice anything after meets. He would never bully students on his teams who were religious, or treat them differently at all.

All of this should have been obvious to any reasonable person, but the sort of conservatives who spread these screenshots online aren’t reasonable people. They’re right-wing zealots who can’t take a joke or understand what the world looks like to people who don’t share their faith.

At the next meeting of the Kirksville R-III Board of Education in July, there were parents eagerly trying to get board members to fire him from his coaching job. It didn’t work… but the controversy was only beginning.

An investigation into his tweets (and additional conduct) was launched the following month. While a report seen by OnlySky said he likely didn’t violate any district policies, an administrator put him on notice, warning him not to cross any lines again. Regarding any future tweets, they wanted him to specify that he was speaking as an individual and not as a coach (which was fair).

After all this, Gabel was allowed to return as head coach that fall. His team even made it to the State meet. It capped a career that saw 25 state qualifiers, multiple regular season wins, and a team that had doubled in size since he took on the job.

Six days later, he was fired as a coach.

He posted this goodbye message on his team’s Facebook page last month:

You can see from the comments underneath that post that parents weren’t happy he was being told to leave. They made plans to appeal his firing at the next school board meeting on December 14, where they would defend his professionalism and coaching skills. They hoped to sway the board into reversing their decision.

It didn’t work. Neither did a petition to reinstate Gabel launched by one of his students. The school board didn’t budge. They didn’t give an official explanation as to why Gabel’s contract wasn’t renewed other than to say they had “lost confidence” in him… which is quite the excuse given that he was, by just about every objective standard, a very successful coach. They clearly wanted to avoid any mention of the tweets. That explanation, however, kept them out of any legal troubles. Missouri is an “at-will” state and public employees can be fired for virtually any reason that’s not discriminatory.

Gabel will remain a math teacher in the district, where he has tenure, but his successful coaching career has been cut short because ignorant Christians couldn’t understand satire, assumed the worst, and got a school board to go along with it.

I asked Gabel on Thursday if he had any advice for other public school employees who may want to express their opinions as he did. He told me he feared the “Satanic Panic” was alive and well, adding:

In some people’s mind everything is a battle of good versus evil. To them, if you’re not pro-Christian, you’re a literal agent of the devil.

The sad reality is that if I had tweeted instead about praying to Jesus after a cross country meet, I would still be the coach.

He’s right about that last part. A Christian coach who actually wanted to impose his faith on kids was a winner at the Supreme Court; a non-Christian coach who joked about imposing Satanism on kids isn’t even permitted to keep his job at a Missouri high school.

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Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.