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by Conrad F. Goeringer

Does the controversy over pre-game public prayers at footballs games really have anything to do with civil liberties? Or is a holdover from earlier times when human sacrifice and the fate of tribes rested in the outcome of the game?

Something stinks in the Lone Star State...

Texas, which is known for oil, serial killers and a near-fanatical devotion to football is in the news, all over the question of whether organized Christian prayers should be permitted at high school athletic events. The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court ruled that some religious activity was permissible at graduation ceremonies, but noted that the hootin’ and hollerin’ atmosphere of a football game was not a sufficiently solemn venue to invoke the presumed attention and care of Almighty God. The court may have missed the mark in the first part of its ruling; but the justices seem to know more about the real world of high school football -- especially in Texas -- than a lot of politicians, students and “religious rights” attorneys would willingly acknowledge.

First, the practical aspects of this...

If indeed there is truly a Supreme Architect of the Universe, a deity that created this enormous cosmos from nothing, or burped everything into existence from a mere quantum fluctuation (as some astrophysicists theorize), would He, She or It really give a damn about the outcome of a high school football game in the middle of the Texas desert? If you believe in an absentee deity of some sort, the kind of God that created the universe, established physical laws or was bound by them in the first place, and then just sat back to let things run their course, the deity is either elsewhere or simply not interested in whether Midland is going to kick butt in this weekend’s game. There may be some merit in praying to a god if you believe in a micro-management deity, of course; this is the kind of Supreme Being who is everywhere simultaneously, presumably listing in to our every thought and keeping a list, and checking it twice. This kind of Jehovah has the time and willingness to listen to all of our prayers and supplications, and sort them out, and balance everything in a kind of karmic profit-and-loss sheet. His ways are difficult to comprehend: why does a plane full of passengers fall out of the sky killing all but one? Why is the case of a lone survivor a “miracle,” when the deaths of everyone else are simply “the incomprehensible ways of the Lord”?

But this is the kind of god to whom, presumably, many Texans wish to pray. He’s there for them and their team; he’s watching over the player who makes a sign-of-the-cross before that free-throw, and he is aware of those devoted running backs who genuflect in the end zone after the big score. Some might even believe that He is responsible for that one play that makes the difference between the agony of defeat and the thrill of victory. Is his hand stilling the wind, or guiding the ball as it sails through the uprights in the final seconds of that Big Game to break the tie?

It might not make much sense, though. After all, how is god to decide on all of those contradictory prayers? If the Dallas Cowboys and fans pray hard enough, will they win? If prayer doesn’t affect the outcome, why bother? And what about the prayers of the other teams, the other fans? If they pray harder, does their team win?

Does god have a favorite in the Super Bowl?

Even many religious people may find this notion troubling, and see this simplistic belief as a trivializing of their faith. But then what good is prayer? If “God answers prayer” as the Bible says, shouldn’t we pray for those important things in life? Perhaps the case of a farmer praying for rain so that he may sell his crops and avoid foreclosure is no more trivial nor significant than the coach who needs a winning season to keep his job, or the player who needs that winning e.r.a. so he can move on to the majors.

Don’t laugh ... this is all serious stuff. One coach lamented the ruling by the Fifth Circuit, saying that: “In Texas, prayer and football go together.” He may be right, and those who cavalierly dismiss or agree with his statement may benefit from a little lesson in human history.

In his book “Billions & Billions, Thoughts on Life and Death and the Brink of the Millennium,” (Random House, N.Y. 1997), the late astronomer Carl Sagan provided readers with insights into the connection between hunting, athletic games and a sensibility of the spiritual world. Others have noted this nexus as well, including psychologist William James. Quoted by Sagan, James noted: “The hunting and the fighting instinct combine in many manifestations... It is just because human bloodthirstiness is such a primitive part of us that is so hard to eradicate, especially where a fight or a hunt is promised as part of the fun.1

Sagan presents us with the thesis that modern day competitive sports “are symbolic conflicts, thinly disguised” and may be the contemporary successors to earlier hunting rituals. By ancient standards, even the antics of the WWF (if you believe them to be real, and not scripted) or the most valiantly contested Super Bowl pale when compared to the brutality of ancient games. In Meso America, for instance, the Mayans and the Aztecs often used a “ball game” to resolve political differences with other tribal groups. The stakes were high; the loosing team was often killed or enslaved. Today’s $5 million signing bonuses, while extravagant, represent a degree of human progress. Indeed, a loss on the game field was sometimes considered as significant as a military defeat. Gods were worshipped and appeased so that the hunt, the game, the outcome of battle would all be successful.

Our modern teams are not that different in other ways, either, from their earlier counterparts. We have the Chicago Bears and the Detroit Tigers; the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert of Botswana had jackals, wildcats and scorpions as their “totems.” They also had “owners,” which today is reserved only for management, not players, and other names which cities or schools may have trouble rooting for. Sagan lists totems like Lice, Bitter Melons, Penises, Short Feet, Big Talkers (perhaps apropos for a Washington, D.C. franchise?) and Diarrheas. From a historical standpoint, though, the evidence is compelling; our modern day athletic contests are rooted, in part, in ancient rituals and symbols having to do with hunting, the natural world, and the propitiation of supernatural forces.

“Dear Lord, help us win tonight...”

Oblivious to this, though, defenders of prayer at football games fall back on an old chestnut; that invocations are a form of free expression guaranteed under the constitution. Last week, a U.S. District Judge issued a temporary restraining order on the Circuit Court ruling and permitted a pre-game prayer. Cheers erupted in the high school stadium as a 17-year old student, led by her principal, walked into an announcer’s booth and asked for a god’s blessing on the game. “Since a very good judge that was using a lot of wisdom this afternoon ruled that I have freedom of speech tonight, I’m going to take it,” she told the pious fans.

There are an estimated 350,000 churches, mosques, temples and other “houses of worship” in the United States according to the Handbook of American Religious Denominations. That figure does not include all sectarian groups, of course, or numerous “weekend” denominations which rent auditoriums or public halls for their services. Texas has an abundance of these “houses of worship” where, as elsewhere, the faithful may go to pray, genuflect, confess, sing, chant, burn incense, light candles, shout or do anything else they deem necessary to worship the deity of their choice. Those so inclined may also pray in the privacy of their own homes or, as advised in St. Matthew, in the closet. 2

But does this public praying have anything to do with civil liberties and free speech? By supporting any form of organized prayer as an expression of free speech, school authorities may find themselves besieged by Muslims who wish to conduct a pre-game invocation, or perhaps local Wiccans intent on calling upon elemental forces. What if a member of the Church of Satan requests “free speech” at the stadium microphone? What then? Would those vocally defending prayer at football games be so vehement in their commitment to civil liberties if the prayer was substantially different from that expressed in the doctrines of their own faith?

The First Amendment wasn’t meant for ideas that the majority already agreed with; it was designed to cover the unpopular stuff, the sort of statements that outrage, provoke and often offend.
As elsewhere, when public officials step forth to defend the First Amendment and the principle of free expression, all should be wary. Many of the religious and political groups supporting school prayer under the ruse of “free expression” are highly selective when it comes to defending the First Amendment -- especially in Texas, and in our nation’s schools. Indeed, since the April 20th shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, schools across the country are beginning to resemble prisons and armed camps instead of centers of learning. Nadine Strossen of the American Civil Liberties Union recently warned, “We’re seeing the equivalent of Fortress America, and students’ privacy rights and freedom of speech are under attack from within.” Libertarians cite the proliferation of metal detectors, random locker searches, demands for blood and urine drug-testing, ID cards, ubiquitous security cameras, dress codes, speech codes and even requirements like transparent backpacks as evidence of this dangerous trend. The excuse, of course, is “safety,” but it is doubtful (although not beyond the realm of possibility) that adults would never tolerate such scrutiny and control of their own behavior at, say, a shopping mall. Would you pee into a cup as a requirement for shopping at J.C. Penny? How about a body search or a dress code in exchange for attending a professional athletic contest?

In Texas, school authorities and politicians are citing “freedom of speech” as a rationale for coercive, public prayer but seem to neglect this part of the Bill of Rights when anything else is involved.

A group of students in Allen, Texas, for instance, were dismissed from school when exercising their freedom of expression last spring, when they wore black armbands in silent protest against rules established after the Littleton shooting. Kids wearing black or other forms of unorthodox garb were summoned to the principal’s office. No one grabbed a stadium microphone to protest this outrage...

And students weren’t encouraged to rally behind the First Amendment when a group of Texas beef barons tried to muzzle Oprah Winfrey back in 1998. They slapped an $11 million lawsuit on the talk show host who made a disparaging remark about eating beef. A federal jury in Amarillo had the good sense to reject the lawsuit, which is now under appeal.

And what about some kid in New Braunfels, Texas who decided to wear a T-shirt featuring shock rocker Marilyn Manson? The 18-year-old was arrested in a grocery store for ostensibly breaking the city’s obscenity display ordinance. In fairness, Texas isn’t the only state with a T-shirt SWAT team; similar incidents have taken place in Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina and elsewhere where shirts depicting unpopular themes or rock groups like Wu-Tang Clan, Korn, Nine Inch Nails or Cradle of Filth are taboo. So much for free expression...

Texas doesn’t stack up well, either, when it comes to tolerance of books. During the 1997-98 school year, more than 50 books were pulled from school libraries. Jay Jacobson of the state ACLU declared, “What is obvious is that censorship is alive and well in Texas. We do not seem to believe that children have brains...” The books included everything from “Lord of the Flies” and “Chocolate Wars” to “The World’s Most Powerful Rifles and Handguns.”

And there was the case where craven self interest and greed prevailed over the First Amendment, as a bunch of lawyers decided to ban self-help legal books from Nolo press. In 1998, a group of attorneys requested a ban on “You and Your Will: A Do-It-Yourself Manual,” along with other publications such as “How to Avoid Probate.” Presumably, free speech does not include empowering private citizens with legal knowledge if it deprives the legal eagles of a $250 per hour fee.

There are plenty of other wholesale violations of civil liberties and free expressions that the Lone Star State, and school prayer boosters, might want to do something about before they put on the mantle of civil libertarianism. Last year in Austin, a judge issued the state’s first court order preventing alleged gang members from engaging in such conduct as using pay phones in certain neighborhoods, or even being seen together. Over in Dallas, a form of “police socialism” is practiced; the Chief of Police has the legal power to shut down dance halls and bars which are not managed “in a peaceful and law abiding manner...” It’s probably unfair to single out Texas for these sorts of travesties; after all, similar laws now exist throughout the country. The government at every level -- federal, state and local - wields considerable authority over our lives and personal behavior, and the protections of the Bill of Rights are being reduced to legal encumbrances, inconveniences and obstacles to be circumvented by crafty law enforcement zealots, prosecutors and others.

But back to the game...

I seriously doubt that school officials, church groups, political leaders and much of the news media in Texas that currently supports prayer at high school athletic events as an expression of “free speech” would feel the same way if students were speaking out on other issues. What if, instead of appealing to Jesus, they were protesting a war, demanding an end to the death penalty (another Texas institution...), calling for an increase in the minimum wage, or some other socially significant event? School prayer is a “safe,” bogus issue; it doesn’t threaten political or financial elites; it’s even trendy and, in Texas anyway, “politically correct.” The high school principal that gladly escorted that student up to the microphone to lead the crowd in prayer may not be so inclined if, for instance, students were speaking out over the right to distribute their own publications on campus, or wear clothing which some might find “inappropriate.”

What if, instead of reading from a Bible, some 17 year old got on the mike and asked, Tell us about the cocaine, George!?

Free speech in Texas, and mostly everywhere else, is unfortunately a privilege and a matter of interpretation. We cite the principle in promoting our own ideas, not the other fellow’s. Those opinions are subversive, disruptive, inappropriate and foul. “Free speech” covers those thoughts and expressions which are safe, orthodox and comfortable; it’s the feel-good freedom Norman Rockwell portrayed in one of his paintings, where any disagreement is usually insubstantial and trivial.

Genuine free expression is something else. It’s not a majority prayer or trite opinion. The First Amendment wasn’t meant for ideas that the majority already agreed with; it was designed to cover the unpopular stuff, the sort of statements that outrage, provoke and often offend.

Prayer at public school events, whether a daily classroom session or a football game, may not have anything to do with real free speech. The groups supporting pre-game religious invocations, like Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice or Campus Crusade haven’t exactly been on the front lines of the civil liberties battles over other issues involving student rights, have they? The principal who speaks out on behalf of public religiosity prior to kick-off may be more than willing to rip up a T-shirt he doesn’t approve of, or confiscate political materials, or pull some kid into his office just for having green-dyed hair. You can shave your head and put on a football helmet, but you may not be able to wear baggy pants and pierce your nose.

Go figure. In Texas, prayer is permissible, especially when authorities approve. Express yourself in other ways, though, and you may indeed be challenging Fortress America.

1 PSYCHOLOGY XXIV (1890), William James quoted in Sagan. [back]

2 “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the 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... But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly,” (Matthew 6: 5-6) [back]

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