News Articles

Prayer movement at football games draws church-state watchdogs’ glare

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A prayer movement is hitting the gridiron this fall, triggering a church-state firestorm.

Concerned Christians at high school football games in numerous states are saying the Lord’s Prayer immediately following the National Anthem.

The American Civil Liberties Union is sniffing around the prayer movement for any involvement by school officials, which was banned by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 6-3 ruling in June.

An organization with a similar-sounding name, but on the opposite side of the nation’s culture war, the American Center for Law and Justice led by evangelical Jay Sekulow, meanwhile is committing itself to defend any school district that is sued for permitting spontaneous prayer at high school football games.

The prayer movement has been promoted by, among others, the National Day of Prayer Task Force; Donald Wildmon, founder of the American Family Association; and actor Tom Lester, who has played feature roles in several movies and the “Green Acres” TV series.

On the other side of the fence: syndicated columnist Cal Thomas and The New York Times editorial page.

A key juncture in the prayer movement will come Friday, Sept. 1, as the football season opens at Santa Fe High School, Santa Fe, Texas — in the school district at issue in the Supreme Court declaration that student-led pre-game public prayer is unconstitutional.

The intention of one pro-prayer group, “No Pray, No Play,” to travel to the small Texas town to attend the game and pray the Lord’s Prayer immediately after the National Anthem has drawn the endorsement of the National Day of Prayer Task Force’s vice chairman, Jim Weidmann.

“The people of Santa Fe simply want to use this game as an opportunity to express their faith, within the confines of the law,” Weidmann said in a news release distributed by the Colorado Springs-based task force.

The Supreme Court ruling this year “should awaken us to the reality of how we are losing our right to exercise our freedom of religion,” Weidmann said. “The First Amendment of the Constitution clearly states, ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ … Those who attend and participate in saying the Lord’s Prayer at the game simply wish to utilize that freedom while they still have it.”

Although the football season moves into full swing with Friday night games Sept. 1, the Lord’s Prayer already has been spontaneously voiced at scores of games spanning from in North and South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and Arkansas to Ohio and New Mexico.

At Reynolds High School in Asheville, N.C., where a community-wide “We Still Pray” rally Aug. 17 drew national attention to the prayer movement, the voicing of the Lord’s Prayer at an Aug. 25 football game made the front page of USA Today. The previous week’s rally drew 12,000 people to the school stadium and an estimated 25,000 others who found themselves on jammed roadways unable to get to the gathering.

At a game in Hattiesburg, Miss., a few students began by holding hands in the bleachers and praying, “Our Father who art in heaven.” By the time they got to “deliver us from evil,” most of the crowd of 4,500 was standing, reciting the Lord’s Prayer, The New York Times reported.

In Forest City, N.C., a radio station is allowing a pastor to say a prayer at the beginning of high school football broadcasts and urging fans at the game to turn up their radios during the prayer.

The American Family Association is promoting the prayer movement on its radio network supplied to 200 Christian stations across the country.

“Of course we know the ACLU will go berserk,” AFA leader Wildmon said in a news release. “But on the other hand, there is no way the Supreme Court can stop this because it is simply individuals participating on their own without any [school] leader.”

The ACLJ’s Sekulow, in promising to defend any school district where the prayer movement is challenged by the ACLU, noted, “Even with the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court regarding school prayer, there should be no confusion that spontaneous prayer at high school football games is both legal and constitutional.” Sekulow represented the Santa Fe Independent School District in the case that was filed by the ACLU in behalf of a local Mormon family and a Catholic family.

“It is clear that private student prayer before sporting events is permissible provided that the prayer is not sponsored or endorsed by the school and does not utilize the school’s public address system,” Sekulow said. “As students and members of the community are permitted to stand up and cheer for their team, they are also permitted to stand up and recite a religious statement, including a prayer.”

Sekulow also said, “If a school district attempts to prohibit or stop these prayers, they may well be engaged in a violation of the constitutional rights of those in attendance. And that may very well trigger legal action against the school district.”

The ACLJ has sent an informational letter outlining the legalities of religious expression in the public schools in light of the Santa Fe decision to superintendents in more than 15,000 public school districts across the country. The letter is available at the ACLJ Internet site at www.aclj.org. The ACLJ phone number at its Virginia Beach, Va., headquarters is (757) 226-2489.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s national legal director, Steven Shapiro, meanwhile, was described by The New York Times as “not sure what to make of” the prayer movement.

“It’s a complicated legal question, but one of the things we have learned over the years is that school officials are rarely uninvolved at their own events, rarely passive observers,” Shapiro said. “School officials don’t like to relinquish control.”

The Wall Street Journal quoted another ACLU official, David Ingebretsen, as saying, “It seems to me that a planned spontaneous prayer cannot be spontaneous and it violates the court’s ruling. If this is planned, spontaneous prayer happens, it forces everyone there to hear that prayer or to participate in it.”

The Internet news site CNSNews.com reported that the ACLU stated on its website, “Anytime that the government puts its stamp of approval on religious activity, it creates an atmosphere of coercion, whereby any student who does not want to recite a voluntary prayer must either participate against his/her will or protest in embarrassment.”

And an official with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told USA Today, “Schools don’t have the luxury of ignoring Supreme Court rulings they don’t like.” Yet, he acknowledged, “No one will be monitoring with a stopwatch the moments between the National Anthem and the coin toss.”

In at least one setting Aug. 25, at Batesburg-Leesville High School in South Carolina, the student body president led prayers from the press box in countering the Supreme Court ruling, USA Today reported.

In Pontotoc, Miss., a public address system was set up on private property overlooking the high school football stadium, the American Family Association reported. Immediately before the National Anthem, a high school sophomore said a prayer.

Columnist Cal Thomas, an evangelical Christian, criticized the high school prayer movement because it “trivializes the effectual and fervent variety” of prayer.

“To whom are these football fans and students praying? For what purpose?” Thomas asked “More importantly, if their first priority is to always be a good ‘witness’ before people who do not share their faith in order that the observers might consider that faith, what damage is caused by forcing people to listen to a prayer of a type they do not say which is directed to a God in whom they may not believe? … How would Christians like it if they lived in a community where their faith was the minority one and they were forced to sit through a prayer offered to a different god? How comfortable would they be if the supplicant requested the destruction of all ‘infidels’ who do not worship in the same manner as the person praying?”

Thomas continued, “Apparently some people have such an inferiority complex about their faith that they need to see it trumpeted before the world. It is an in-your-face faith rather than an in-your-heart variety. It smacks of triumphalism that is foreign to its Founder. It was Jesus, after all, who frequently separated himself from the crowds in order to pray in private. He instructed his followers, not only in deed but in word: ‘And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues (football stadiums?) and on the street corners to be seen by men. … But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you’ (Matthew 6:5-6).'”

Thomas concluded, “Instead of trying to devise prayers that will be approved by the Supreme Court, prayers that are bound to be empty of content and meaningless, prayer ‘activists’ should be concerned with prayers that fulfill the instructions of Jesus of Nazareth and reach the ears — and earn the approval — not of the Supreme Court but of the Supreme Judge.”

The New York Times also criticized the prayer movement in an Aug. 29 editorial.

“A prayer initiated by students may pass legal muster,” The Times wrote. “But its message of religious orthodoxy may be just as socially coercive for teenagers as a voice over the public address system. In that respect, it is no less threatening to religious freedom than organized school prayer. Mainstream religious leaders should speak out against a strategy that imposes religious observance on a captive school audience.”

Charles Burchett, pastor of First Baptist Church, Kirbyville, Texas, told Crosswalk.com’s Religion Today news channel that he has enlisted 15 local pastors from a number of denominations to form prayer groups at the high school stadium around the public-access area behind the stands. Volunteer firemen outside school property will blow a “big horn that sounds like a ship horn” five minutes before a time of prayer is scheduled to start, Burchett said. Pastors have instructed their congregations to then “get to your spot” for two minutes of prayer for the principal, coaches, teachers and players. Then the fire horn will toot again briefly, Burchett said, and everyone in each of the 15 groups will say the Lord’s Prayer in unison.

Burchett told Religion Today he went to great lengths to make sure that no fan would be inconvenienced and that the school administrators would not be put in an awkward position. Everyone will be invited to participate, but no school personnel or equipment will be used, and no one in the band or on the team will be asked to forego their responsibilities in order to pray, he said.

“Go the second, third, fourth and fifth miles to make sure you don’t put your school authorities in any corner or tough position,” Burchett counseled. This way, Christians “will be obeying instead of violating the law,” the pastor said. “We will be professing our faith in Jesus instead of protesting decisions of God-established authorities. From our hearts and our mouths we will be blessing instead of cursing.”

Among other individuals quoted in the news media about their participation in the prayer movement:

— Linda Davis, mother of Reynolds High School’s quarterback, who told USA Today, “I’m here to assert my right to pray for all these boys’ safety and morale and for the crowd, too.”

— An unidentified man at a football game in Batesville, Miss., who said, “The bottom line is this: We have to start standing up for what is morally right. [The courts] stand up for things that aren’t morally right … and our taxes are paying for them. [Public prayer] is our moral obligation, our moral right, and we’re going to do it.”