Players have right to pray

Sunday, January 5, 1997

The football team at our public high school says a prayer
before every game. Is this practice constitutional?

Kelly Goin, Tulsa, Okla.

Yes, if it is student-initiated and student-led. Students have
the right to pray, alone or in groups, as long as they aren't
disruptive and don't interfere with the rights of others.

Coaches, however, should not participate in the prayer. Under
the First Amendment, teachers and administrators must be fair
and neutral toward religion when acting as school officials.

Many citizens remain confused about prayer in the public schools,
in part because they are confused about what the First Amendment
actually says. Here's the relevant portion: “Congress shall
make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting
the free exercise thereof … .”

That first section — often referred to as the “establishment
clause” — speaks only to what the government may not
do. As representatives of the government during their contract
time, coaches and teachers may neither promote nor denigrate religion.

But no such restrictions apply to students. In fact, that second
religious-liberty clause of the First Amendment quoted above,
the part that says Congress is not to make laws “prohibiting
the free exercise” of religion, specifically recognizes that
all citizens — students included — have the right to express their

Of course, this should be done in an appropriate time and manner.
Members of the football team who wish to do so are free to gather
for prayer before a game as long as they don't interfere with
instruction by the coach. They may not, however, insist that
everyone on the team participate. Students do not have the right
to make a captive audience participate in religious exercises.

It is important for coaches to know and uphold the religious-liberty
rights of students. At the same time, coaches should also be
sensitive to the rights of those students who do not wish to participate
in prayer. The coach, like the classroom teacher, should promote
an attitude of mutual respect for the rights of all students.

A coach I know in Southern California, like most coaches, gives
a pep talk before every game. Then he pauses to give the players
who have requested it a few minutes to say a prayer together.
He has made it clear to the entire team that they are free during
that time to prepare quietly for the game in any way they choose.
No one on the team feels pressured to join the prayer group.
In this way he accommodates the religious needs of some players
while protecting the rights of all.

Under the First Amendment, public schools should be places where
students of all faiths or none are treated with fairness and respect.