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Heads bowed and lips invoked Jesus at high school football games across the country last week. Is this outburst of religiosity really “spontaneous”? Is it legal? And are Christian devotees of public prayer following their own holy book?

by Conrad F. Goeringer
September 4, 2020

Pigskin Piety and the Passion of St. Matthew

Heads bowed, lips moved in prayer, but by most media accounts, a much publicized religious protest this past weekend at Santa Fe High School in Texas failed to live up to the publicity. The Washington Post noted, “A Few Texas Faithful Make Stand For Prayer.” Associated Press led with a report, “Prayer protest fizzles at game.” John Tedesco of the San Antonio Express News wrote, “Some came to pray, not play,” and added that an organized recitation of the Lord’s Prayer “was all but drowned out amid the din of bullhorns, screaming students and a high school marching ban.”

Similar prayer ceremonies have been occurring at high school football games since last weekend when many teams had their season openers. It is all in protest over the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in SANTA FE INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT v. DOE this past summer, where a 6-3 court majority struck down the Texas policy which permitted “student led” prayer a high school football games. Two families -- one Roman Catholic, the other Mormon -- had sued the district over the policy, arguing that it violated the separation of church and state. It is worth noting that the identities of the families had to be shielded by the courts, for fear that the plaintiffs may be subject to harassment and intimidation. Woe! be unto the youngster or parent who defends the constitutional separation of church and state, and protests an illegal religious policy in a local school. Michael Chandler, an assistant principal at an Alabama high school supported his son in protesting the broadcast of religious devotionals over the school public address system, only to be threatened with physical violence. In Mississippi, Lisa Herdahl and her family were also threatened and labeled communists and devil worshippers. Their only crime was in protesting a similar violation of the First Amendment.

Frustrated by the Supreme Court, prayer supporters have concocted an ingenious strategy. They encourage “spontaneous” prayer as an expression of free speech and freedom of worship; the only problem here is that the spontaneity has to be planned, so that people know exactly when (right after the playing of the national anthem...) to speak up with their “spontaneous” devotional. This is also advertised as a “student initiated” prayer as well, which would presumably pass constitutional muster since school authorities are not involved in the planning or recitation of the prayer. The “student initiated” part of the prayer protests, though, seem to ring hollow with all of the off-campus ministers and adult prayer warriors organizing this “spontaneous” affair. Outside the gate to the Santa Fe High School game on Friday night was a cluster of mostly adults gathered in prayer and singing hymns. Two grown men had taken the effort to drag a pair of 12-boot crosses to the event as well. The students were inside the stadium playing football, or sporting painted faces and green-and-white T-shirts in support of their team.

Public stunts for “spontaneous” prayer are less about legitimate religious exercise than being seen by others in the act of praying, ...
Most of the outcry over the Supreme Court decision seems to be coming from adults, not students. Some are the aging eminences grises of the religious right like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson who have not seen the inside of a high school classroom in years. Others are like Rev. Ralph Sexton, a Baptist minister in Asheville, N.C. has who wrangled media time for organizing pre-game prayers around that state last week. He heads an organization calling itself “We Still Pray” that attracted thousands of supporters to an August 17 rally. “Enough is enough,” blusters Sexton, referring to the high court’s ban on fraudulent school prayer. Adult religious groups have turned the high school prayer fracas into a political issue, with some students unwittingly being drafted into a proxy culture war taking place even at high school football games.

Questions remain about the “spontaneous” religious outburst, though.

Are the prayers legal?

Legal eagles say that while the “spontaneous” prayer demonstrations seem to flaunt the intent of the SANTA FE ruling, they are technically within the law. As long as school authorities remain neutral and uninvolved, and do not furnish publicity or resources for these gridiron devotionals, the activity may fall under the “free speech” and “free exercise” clauses of the First Amendment. School boards in some communities -- including three towns in Texas -- still permit their public address systems to be used for the prayer, and they likely face a well-deserved legal spanking.

That may do little do discourage the prayer, though, since local ministerial groups can bring in their own PA systems. Another tactic has been for a local radio station to broadcast the “spontaneous” prayer, with supporters simply bringing their own boom boxes into the stadium, and on full volume subjecting their neighbors to prayer. (One wonders if “free speech” would be cited in defense of a group of rappers broadcasting hits like “Big Pimpin’” at these same events...)

Is it rude and in poor taste?

Given the fact that the “spontaneous” prayer bullying is likely within the technical shadow of the law, the fact that such behavior is downright inconsiderate, annoying and likely to become boorish may be the best argument against it. When one heads to a movie theater to see a film, you don’t expect to be harassed with a religious message. The same may be said of the Friday night high school gridiron match. Although it might have been a “tradition” for years in some communities, exactly what has prayer got to do with football? People presumably trek to such events and pay hefty ticket prices to see a game, not a service. There is also something sneaky, disingenuous and irritating about requiring that all present acknowledge or participate in sectarian prayer. Admittedly, most of the prayerful in Texas high school stadiums may be Christians; but what about those who are not? A high school game in New York City that tried to accommodate the prayers of all denominations represented in the bleachers may find itself dragging into the late hours of the evening before the opening kickoff.

The prayer may well be offensive to those religious individuals in a minority faith, or even those who hold to a “mainstream” Christian persuasion but feel that it is an activity which, when held in the hoopla of a bloodthirsty football match (aren’t they the best, anyway?) trivializes their most deeply cherished belief. Atheists likely find the ritual insulting, and perhaps might ask for a refund on that portion of their ticket price. Why have the prayer anyway? What good does it do anyone?

Is this all about legitimate prayer and religious freedom, or something else?

Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice represented the Santa Fe Independent School District before the U.S. Supreme Court, and argued that the “student led” prayer was, in effect, free expression and private religious speech. Indeed, “free speech” has become the Johnny-come-lately battle cry of those religious and political groups supporting public prayer. Imagine, though, what might happen if a group of librarians showed up at the Friday night game to read select passages from the latest banned book in the high school or public library. Would ACLJ be rushing to their defense? What about the student who might have been expelled for wearing a controversial T-shirt (and yes, one bearing the visage of Marilyn Manson qualifies here...) ? “Free speech” too often becomes a popular cause only when it involves safe and relatively non-controversial themes.

Is it legitimate free speech and religious exercise, though? I’ve never been to the small community of Santa Fe, but if it is like other American towns there is probably an abundance of “houses of worship” within a 10 or 15 minute drive. America has over 350,000 churches, mosques, temples, synagogues and chapels were people of all religious beliefs may go to sing, pray, genuflect, burn incense, chant, read from holy books and conduct whatever rituals they deem appropriate in summoning the attention of their respective deity or deities. That figure does not include thousands of “weekend congregations” which rent halls, meetings rooms and theaters, or gather in private homes. Speaking of private homes, the residence of all religious believers -- even those in Santa Fe, Texas -- may be used for prayer. Students may pray before and after classes, while walking in school hallways, in the privacy of the lavatory or while riding the school bus.

With all of this opportunity, why try attempt transform a raucous high school athletic event into a revival meeting? Do energized prayer warriors believe that they score redemption points for being seen in public while praying? Is there something about their religious faith that states that others must be evangelized in so blatant, and unfair, a manner?

Public stunts for “spontaneous” prayer are less about legitimate religious exercise than being seen by others in the act of praying, and crossing the social boundaries which define when and where prayer may be appropriate. A high school football game is not a religious service. Would it be appropriate on Sunday morning for football fans to show up at a church service and beginning tossing the pig skin down the aisle?

It may be dangerously premature to suggest that the “spontaneous” prayer movement has already failed and is about to expire a well-deserved cultural death. Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the ACLJ says that his group will represent gratis any self-appointed prayer warriors who find themselves in legal hot water as the result of trying to interrupt a game in hopes of grabbing a minute or so of religious fame. Sekulow told the Washington post that the football prayer outbursts are “symptomatic of something much larger,” and compares this to the candidacies of Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Democratic Vice Presidential Hopeful Joseph Lieberman who have incorporated their religious beliefs into the election year 2000 campaign.

“There’s a common weave, and that’s a desire to see some basis upon which religious faith can be openly professed in our society,” says Sekulow.

Sekulow, and many supporters of public prayer, seem to misunderstand the difference between having the right to practice religion, and attempting to have government act as a handmaiden in promulgating it. The Santa Fe case suggests that they are not content with simple religious freedom, if it involves merely having the right to practice their faith in the privacy of their homes, churches and other houses of worship. Where would they draw the line when it comes to this public profession of religious belief? Is it the fact that football games provide an audience? Do these end-of-the-week athletic contests provide a platform for proselytizing? Why organize spontaneous prayer on Friday night at venues where not everyone may agree with what is going on, as opposed to, say, Sunday morning where all may voluntarily decide whether or not they wish to pray, or even attend church?

How should Atheists and other nonbelievers respond to the Friday night prayer bullying?

This activity may well be legal, as annoying as it is. We can demand that the pace of game activities, though, not be altered to “accommodate” the antics of prayer warriors. When the National Anthem ends, rather than a lull in the pace of the evening’s schedule we should make sure that horns blare, yells fill the air and the business of the game begins. If the faithful wish to compete with cheerleaders and a romping mascot, that is up to them. They will likely lose.

We should still take the “spontaneous prayer” movement seriously, though. Sekulow is right; it is the tip of a cultural iceberg which is too big to ignore. The Friday night prayer crowd speaks of resuscitating the old Religious Freedom Amendment which would change the Constitution of the United States and permit a wider range of religious activities in public schools during the course of the official class day. This could well include unison devotionals and Bible verse recitation, “student led” solemnization, and even a “call to prayer” from the high school public address system. There is little truly spontaneous or voluntary about any of this, of course; it is all about having an audience.

There are few times to promote verses from the “Good Book,” but this is one of them.

The next time “spontaneous” prayer comes to your neighborhood, consider taking a piece of poster board and marking on it:

Matt. 6:1

or Matt. 6:5

The reference is to the book of St. Matthew, who instructs the faithful to “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them,” and avoid being one of the “hypocrites” who “pray standing in the synagogues and in the corner of the streets, that they may be seen of men.” We might perhaps add to that list the bleachers and stands of America’s high school football stadiums.


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