Tim Tebow won’t be praying on the football field this fall after being repeatedly cut from NFL teams, but it’s proving more difficult to take religion out of high-school games. Despite a string of Supreme Court precedents prohibiting prayer at any school-related activity, every football season, a handful of schools come under fire for permitting students to offer prayers over the loudspeaker before the kick-off or allowing coaches to pray with their teams.
One of this year’s dramas is unfolding in southwest Kansas, just a few miles north of the Oklahoma border. On September 26, the school board in the city of—wait for it—Liberal voted unanimously to allow student-led prayer over the school’s loudspeaker and over microphones on the football field. Until a few years ago, this was standard practice in the Liberal public-school system, but the use of sound systems to broadcast prayer was prohibited after administrators voiced concerns about running afoul of federal law.
School prayer wasn’t on the agenda for last month’s school board meeting; the impromptu vote was inspired by a wistful speech by a board member who said he missed prayer at football games. In an account of the meeting in a local newspaper, a school superintendent urged the board members to table the proposal until the next meeting, when their attorney could offer a legal opinion. “I’m sure you’re right,” replied one board member, according to the High Plains Leader and Times. “I’m sure he’ll come back and tell us the reasons not to, or at least show us where the liabilities lie, but if there’s a will, there’s a way.” Although the move could put the school district in line for a lawsuit, other board members don’t seem concerned about the legal ramifications. “We’re not doing anything that our Constitution wouldn’t support,” says Tammy Sutherland-Abbot, another board member. “Prayer means many different things to many different people, and this was what our students wanted.”
The issue of prayer and school sports resurfaced earlier this week in the Florida House of Representatives. Republican House Speaker Will Weatherford declared that public high-school coaches should be able to pray with their teams. Weatherford, who could not be reached for comment, told the Tampa Bay Times earlier this week that he planned to stand up for coaches’ rights in the legislature. “If you had told anybody 30 to 40 years ago … that a coach wouldn't be allowed to legally lead a prayer with his players, I don't think anyone would have believed you. It's un-American.”
Unfortunately for Weatherford and the Liberal school board, precedent for banning prayer in schools stretches back to 1962, when the Supreme Court ruled that schools cannot compose or encourage students to recite a specific prayer. This decision set the stage for a series of judgments that, over the next four decades, placed even more limits on the kinds of prayers that can be heard in schools. In 1985, the Court ruled that Alabama’s law permitting one minute for prayer or meditation was unconstitutional. In 1992, the Court outlawed clergy-led prayer at school graduation ceremonies. And in 2000, the Court prohibited school-organized, student-led prayer at high-school football games.
This 40-year cascade of legal rulings clearly established the Supreme Court’s position on the issue of school prayer: Unless it’s through a student-initiated, voluntary religious club, don’t do it. In the most recent case, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, the Court ruled that students should not be forced to decide between attending football games or facing a “personally offensive religious ritual.” Given the Court’s rightward drift over the past decade, some hope the current lineup of justices might be amenable to a challenge, though the swing vote, Anthony Kennedy, is unlikely to budge on the issue. In his majority opinion for the 1992 case, he pointed out that while prayer before a legislative session or school board meeting is acceptable (at least for now—one of the Supreme Court’s cases this term, Town of Greece v. Galloway, will address the issue of prayer at government gatherings), minors are more vulnerable to the pressures of social conformity, and should be given special protection. That means no prayers over the loudspeaker or with coaches, teachers, and other authority figures.
Why, then, are church-state separation groups still mired in conflicts with local school districts over the issue of prayer? Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia who argued on behalf of the plaintiffs in Santa Fe v. Doe says some right-wing politicians pick fights over school prayer to score brownie points with their base. “There’s always some politician who wants to cater to the conservative religious vote and thinks this will be popular and he’ll get credit for it,” says Laycock. It’s understandable why GOP politicians would use prayer before football games as a sound bite. According to a poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in January 2013, 93 percent of white evangelical Protestants and 89 percent of Republicans believe that public high schools should be able to sponsor prayer before football games. Strangely enough, they’re not alone; three quarters of the general public and a solid majority of the religiously unaffiliated are in favor.
In other cases, the choice to allow school prayer may be due to ignorance or fear of changing the status quo. Many administrators may not know about the history of Supreme Court rulings; they aren’t sued because their school’s practice simply doesn’t make it into the media. It can also be difficult to find a plaintiff for cases like this, especially in small towns where anonymity is nearly impossible. “Plaintiffs in these cases get death threats,” Laycock says. “They get hassled and retaliated against at school. And in extreme cases, it goes beyond threats. My clients in Santa Fe—someone killed their dog.”
But there’s no question that the law is on church-state separationists’ side. “I’ll admit, there are some areas in church-state relations where the law is kind of gray,” says Robert Boston, communications director for Americans United for Church and State. “This isn’t one of them. All of the legal precedent backs us up.” In most cases, Boston says that school districts back off after gentle prodding. But litigation isn’t out of the question, and if the fight makes it to court, the stakes are high. When school systems lose cases, they are often responsible for their opponents’ legal fees, racking up bills in the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In the grand scheme of things, a prayer before a high-school football game may not seem like such a big deal. But apart from the obvious burden it places on religious minorities who are forced to sit through a dose of (usually Christian) dogma before their all-American sporting event, Laycock notes that efforts to make invocations accessible to multiple denominations usually end up watering prayers down until they’re unrecognizable. “Who wants some wishy-washy nondenominational prayer?” Laycock says. “That’s not what anyone would have chosen on their own. The founders got this right. Religion is corrupted by government, and religious minorities are oppressed by government efforts to sponsor religion.”
But that doesn’t mean schools won’t keep doing it. Short of surveying every administrator in the country, there’s no way to know how many schools are complying with the prayer ban, and apart from a few watchdog groups, no one seems particularly interested in prosecuting districts for low-level church-state infractions. The result? In many parts of America, prayer in the end zone remains a venerable football-season tradition.