Is a 60-second, rote prayer at ball games worth a fight?

Sunday, September 6, 1998

Football season has arrived, and in small towns across America that means Friday nights in the bleachers, cheering the school to victory. A short prayer over the loudspeaker, a valiant attempt to sing “The Star Spangled Banner,” and the game begins. God, country, and football.

But the familiar ritual is being challenged these days. Almost 10 years ago, in a case out of Georgia, a decision by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that invocations before high school football games are unconstitutional — even if they're led by students. Since the ruling covers Alabama, Georgia and Florida, pre-game prayers are most likely to be challenged there. But school districts in other states are also eliminating invocations in order to avoid conflict and lawsuits.

This may strike some people as a minor problem. But for folks in places like DeKalb County, Ala. (where football itself is almost a religion), it's a painful issue that disturbs values and traditions close to the heart.

However painful compliance may be, schools in DeKalb County have no choice. They're under court order to obey the law in the 11th Circuit, including the prohibition against broadcast prayers at school-sponsored events.

At the first DeKalb County game of the season a few couple of weeks ago, an assistant principal stood guard over the Fyffe High School PA system to make sure no one attempted an act of civil disobedience. But there weren't any protests. The game opened with a moment of silence followed by the national anthem, and that seemed to work — for now.

This doesn't mean that people who want to restore pre-game prayers over the loudspeaker have given up. They'll keep trying to get the courts to allow such prayers, or at least to allow students to initiate the prayers and lead them.

For these folks, Friday night football games aren't simply “school-sponsored events” where “government prayers” should be prohibited. The games are regarded as special times when the community comes together for recreation and celebration, and an invocation just seems like the right way to start things off.

But people on the other side of this issue are just as determined to stop public prayer at school events — even events held at night or on weekends. In their view, school officials have no business sponsoring prayer anytime, anyplace.

At the risk of making everybody mad, I don't see much merit in either argument. On one hand, I can't understand why anyone sitting in those bleachers would be much bothered by a 60-second prayer — especially if delivered by a student. After all, courts allow prayers at city council meetings and other civic events. Sure, the football games are “school-sponsored.” But attendance isn't compulsory. Games are played in the evening with many adults as well as students in the stands; people even pay to get in.

On the other hand, I also don't understand why anyone wants to push for public prayer knowing that everyone in the crowd isn't of the same faith (and that some are of no faith at all). Why make people feel like outsiders in their own town? Public prayers are usually quick, rote, non-sectarian (whatever that is), and barely heard. What purpose does such an exercise serve other than to risk trivializing prayer? For me, authentic prayer is prayed alone — or in a community of believers.

Besides, it's almost impossible to find a prayer that everyone can agree on. A cartoon I saw recently suggested that we'll soon be reduced to saying: “To Whom it May Concern.” I'll take a moment of silence over that any day.

America is changing, even small-town America. And we're going to have to find ways to accommodate one another. The fact that we're all free to pray in the way we choose — or not to pray at all — should be a cause for celebration, not conflict.