When faith and football don’t mix

Thursday, October 25, 2012

You can throw a Hail Mary at a public school football game, but you can’t actually hail Mary. That distinction is at the heart of a flurry of incidents this fall in which public universities and high schools are being challenged for conducting prayers before football games. In recent months:

  • The University of Tennessee-Chattanooga announced that it would no longer hold public prayers before football games, while the UT campus in Knoxville said it was retaining them at Neyland Stadium. The decisions came after accusations by the Freedom From Religion Foundation that the practice violates the separation of church and state.
  • In August, some Pine Belt, Miss., high school districts decided to stop holding prayers before home football games after complaints. The Lenoir City, Tenn., school board and the Haralson County High School in Tallapoosa, Ga., did the same.
  • Sissonville High School in West Virginia in September halted prayers over the loud speaker before football games after a parent objected.
  • Players in Kountze, Texas, were ordered by school officials last month to stop running through cheerleaders’ banners emblazoned with biblical references. Sample passage: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Critics of the ban, including the state’s governor and attorney general, contend that the banners are personal expressions of faith and not part of school operations. A district judge said last week that the biblical banners could stay, pending a trial next year.

A Tebow moment

Despite the inherent violence of the sport, faith and football are surprisingly intertwined. This is the sport that gave us the “Immaculate Reception,” the Music City Miracle and Tim Tebow’s biblical eye black.

The controversy over pre-game prayers isn’t going away. The aggressive campaign by the foundation and the threat of personal liability facing principals and board members means that schools need to take a hard look at whether their practices violate the First Amendment.

Under the Constitution, government is prohibited from promoting religion. Public universities and high schools are government entities.

Public school students are largely free to exercise their faith on campus and on the field. A player’s personal prayer in the locker room or on the bench is protected by the First Amendment.

The challenges to prayer arise when school employees and resources are involved. A high school football coach can’t lead his team in prayers. Yet a patchwork of inconsistent court decisions boils down to this: Public universities are free to hold prayers before football games as long as they only cite God and do not mention Jesus. A specific nod to Christianity would be viewed as supporting one faith over others. The theory is that a general nod to a deity serves a non-religious purpose, giving fans a moment to reflect, while not advancing a particular faith.

Public school curbs

Public high schools, on the other hand, face greater restrictions.

The U.S. Supreme Court has concluded that public high school-organized prayers over the loudspeaker at a football game create an appearance of endorsement of religion, regardless of specific faith. The Court reasoned that high school students are more susceptible to school or peer pressure than their college counterparts.

It’s an odd system when a reference to Jesus is considered religious and a reference to God is not. The safest course for all public schools is to simply call for a moment of silence before a game. Players, coaches and fans alike can then pray silently in the tradition of their own faiths or simply sit in reflection.

That will keep schools out of court, leave freedom of faith intact and ensure an even playing field for all religions.

This article was first published in USA Today Oct. 23.

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