Taking militant stance on public prayer misses the point

Friday, September 1, 2000

Matthew must have missed the exception for high school football

That’s the only conclusion I can reach as I try to make sense of the
militant reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court’s
recent decision in
Santa Fe Independent School District v.
. In Doe, the
court held that high schools could not allow students to recite prayers over
the public-address systems at school-sponsored football games. By permitting
such prayers, the court said, schools appear to endorse religion and particular
religious beliefs and therefore violate the separation of church and state.

Matthew is the author of the Gospel traditionally credited for
memorializing the Lord’s Prayer. Sadly, the prayer recounted in Matthew 6:9-15
has become the weapon of choice of those determined to establish prayer at high
school football games. For them, the court’s decision in
Doe is not a reaffirmation that the
government must not be allowed to prefer one religion over another. For them,
it’s a call to arms:

In Santa Fe, Texas, the school district originally sued in
ministers from 30 area churches have
encouraged citizens to recite the Lord’s Prayer before football games. Such
“spontaneous” prayer, the ministers insist, is outside the ruling in
Doe and therefore

In other Texas towns, the group No Pray No Play intends to
distribute cards at high school football games urging fans to recite the Lord’s
Prayer immediately after the national anthem. “I don’t know of a school in
Texas where this won’t be happening,” No Pray No Play leader Kody Shed told the
Associated Press.

In Asheville,
N.C., 25,000 people recently gathered at a high school football stadium to
rally in support of reciting the Lord’s Prayer before this season’s games.

In Bogue Chitto,
Miss., Paul Ott, a syndicated talk-show host, urged fans to evade the
ruling in Doe by voluntarily saying
the Lord’s Prayer before games.

In Tupelo, Miss., the American Family Association
encouraged spectators throughout the
South to say the Lord’s Prayer before each game. “Of course, we know the
ACLU will go berserk,” AFA President Donald E. Wilson 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 a

The AFA, of course, will be disappointed if the ACLU doesn’t “go
berserk.” Those leading the effort to establish prayer at high school football
games enjoy the arrogance of belonging to the comfortable majority. Like those
determined to post the Ten Commandments in every public building imaginable,
they relish their ability to run political roughshod over those with different
(or no) religious beliefs. No one can stop us, they say with glee. Not Jews or
Muslims or Buddhists. Not the Supreme Court. And certainly not the ACLU.

I can’t help but wonder about this attitude. Forget, if we must, that
it’s wholly inconsistent with the First Amendment. It’s also inconsistent with
Christianity, at least the Christianity I practice. What happened to tolerance,
understanding and respect? Why do people whose faith appears so deep need
government to endorse their beliefs? How can people have so quickly forgotten
that religious freedom can only exist when government remains neutral?

What I wonder most about, though, is how people pushing football-game
prayer square their actions with the verse of Matthew’s Gospel immediately
preceding those containing the Lord’s Prayer:

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be
as hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the
corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily, I say unto you,
they have their reward.

But thou, when thou prayest, enter into
thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to the Father which is in
secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward those

Matthew, I suppose, could have missed the exception for high school
football games. But I doubt it. I’m guessing he got it right. Exactly

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