First Amendment Protects Prayer At Games

19 November 1999

By Stentor Danielson

To some people, football is a religion. Faithful worshippers turn out each weekend to pay homage to the mighty deities of Passing, Kicking, Tackling and Vinegar-Soaked Pierogies. But, a recent incident in Santa Fe, Texas, is making people wonder about whether more traditional religions are getting entangled in the Church of Football.

Santa Fe Independent School District has a tradition of student-led prayer at its high school football games. This year, a group of concerned fans challenged the practice. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that allowing prayer at football games violates the separation of church and state. The case has moved on to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to have a verdict by this summer. Hopefully, the appeals court's verdict will be overturned.

Opponents of prayer claim that, by allowing prayer at games, the school district -- and therefore, the government -- is endorsing a religion. They point to the First Amendment, which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech." Opponents maintain that allowing prayer constitutes an establishment of a religion by the school district.

But this logic loses sight of the nature of the prayer. The Supreme Court has already ruled, rightly, against official-sponsored prayers at school functions and the mandatory morning devotionals that used to be a routine part of the school day. The prayers in Santa Fe, however, are student-initiated and completely voluntary.

The distinction of the prayer's origin is important. The separation of church and state was instituted to prevent those in power -- school officials, for example -- from imposing a set of religious beliefs on the people over whom they have power. In this way, the people would be able to exercise their own religious convictions. And the prayers in Santa Fe are an example of the people doing just that.

The Supreme Court has already ruled against prayers sponsored by officials, such as in their 1992 decision that school districts cannot invite clergy to graduation ceremonies for the purpose of leading a prayer. But in Santa Fe, students, recognizing religious convictions developed free of any official pressure, have chosen to express their faith in an invocation before an athletic contest. This is an expression, not an imposition, of religion. The First Amendment was designed specifically to protect the former while preventing the latter.

Equally important is the voluntary nature of the prayer. The intent of the separation of church and state is to prevent the establishment of a theocracy. The Founding Fathers had in mind situations like medieval Europe, where the rule of the Pope superseded that of any secular monarch. More recent examples can be found in places like Iran or Chechnya, where everyone, regardless of their personal religious feelings, is forced to obey strict interpretations of Islamic law.

But nobody is forcing people at the football game to participate in, or even listen to, the prayer. The most that would be asked would be reasonable quiet out of respect for others' beliefs. The prayers allow students to express their own convictions without compelling anyone else to believe, or even pretend to. Those who believe in a different god than the one being prayed to -- or no god at all -- are free to ignore the prayer.

In a sense, banning prayer would violate the separation of church and state by institutionalizing atheism. Though atheism is not precisely a religion, it acts as one in this case by excluding other faiths. Though becoming a theocracy like Iran is undesirable, so is becoming an officially atheist society like communist China.

The First Amendment should be interpreted as prohibiting government from putting its paws into religious exercises, both institutionalizing religion as well as prohibiting it. Allowing prayer endorses freedom: "You may worship if you so choose." Prohibiting it endorses restriction: "You must not worship."

The intent of the First Amendment is to prevent our privileges -- such as that to choose and practice a religion -- from being infringed upon. But that privilege is threatened when voluntary prayer in the presence of nonbelievers is curtailed.

Those who object to prayer at Santa Fe's games should try just ignoring it. They can cover their ears, hum a little tune to themselves, or just twiddle their thumbs for the two minutes it takes to say a benediction for the game. And they can be glad the First Amendment protects their right to choose a different religion than the one the prayer leader has chosen.

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