PRAYER AT PUBLIC SCHOOL SPORTS EVENTS
Topics covered in this essay:
Overview of court decisions and the First Amendment:
Many people (including teachers, principals, and school boards) incorrectly believe that prayer is not allowed in the public schools.
Prayer is, in fact, not only allowed, but is a protected form of speech. This
applies throughout the public school system -- before during and after school --
in school busses, at the
flag-pole, in the cafeteria, etc. It is allowed in student- organized and
student-run religious clubs, (if any secular clubs are also allowed.) Student-led, student-organized prayer may be allowed at special, one-time school
events, like graduation ceremonies. However, it is not normally
permitted in the classroom as part of the teaching
schedule, or at repeated events like athletic games.
The 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is a two-edged sword. On one hand,
it protects students' free speech rights. With relation to prayer at public
||An individual student player or sports fan can engage in prayer by
themselves at school games.
||A number of students, on their own, can decide to group together and
engage in prayer.
However, public school officials cannot be involved in the delivery of a
prayer. To do so would be a violation of the principle of separation of church
and state. That principle prohibits school officials from:
||Promoting a particular religion
||Promoting religion in general as superior to
||Promoting secularism in general as superior to religion.
Court rulings seemed to have agreed that:
||School officials may not add a prayer of their choosing to the game's
||School officials may not include a time slot during the game for a student
to lead others in a prayer, even if the prayer was chosen by the
||A single student or group of students in the stands or on the
playing field can engage in a spontaneous prayer of their own choosing
As in most situations involving religion and the public school system,
a gray area exists. The case described below, Santa Fe
Independent School District in Texas, demonstrates the state of tension
that exists between the two clauses of the First Amendment of the U.S.
Constitution. The school organizes sporting events, and reserves a
time-slot before the game begins for a student to make a statement. This
has always (or almost always) been in the form of a religious invocation -- an historical tradition
||On one hand, the school appears to be directly involved with the
prayer. They set a time aside for a student to deliver a message,
knowing that it is almost always in the form of a prayer. In this
case, the administration polled the student body to determine whether
they wanted an invocation at the games. Then the school arranged for
them to elect a student to give the prayer. The
establishment clause of the First Amendment bans such school
||On the other hand, it can be argued that the school has no control
over what the student says. The student could theoretically talk about
the weather or the curriculum, encourage the players to compete
fairly, or deliver a prayer. To prohibit the student from speaking
freely is an infringement on their human rights, which are also
guaranteed by the First Amendment.
In its 2000-JUN decision of Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe,
Supreme Court decision decided that public schools cannot
constitutionally organize school prayers at games and similar regular events.
Is there any way to allow prayers at school games?
Contrary to public opinion, prayers are not banned at public school
sports events. However, prayers based on a single religion and which form
part of the game schedule are prohibited. A prayer or similar recitation
at the start of each game is probably possible; however, the format would
have to be changed in order to make it constitutional.
The U.S. Supreme Court has defined three criteria that must be used to
determine whether an involvement between church and state (or religion and
public schools) is constitutional. It is often referred to as the "Lemon
test" because it was stated in the court's ruling in Lemon v. Kurtzman,
|"Every analysis in this area must begin with consideration of the cumulative criteria
developed by the Court over many years. Three such tests may be
gleaned from our cases.
||First, the statute must have a secular legislative
||second, its principal or primary effect must be one that
neither advances nor inhibits religion...;
||finally, the statute must not foster 'an excessive government
entanglement with religion.' "
Two methods by which a prayer, invocation, or similar recitation could be
||The school might schedule a
student to read statement before a game that was selected at random from two
groups of texts:
||One group would consist of prayers, picked at random from a variety of faith
groups, including all of the religions represented in the local community.
||The other group would be composed of secular statements, urging fair play,
moral behavior and honorable conduct by the athletes.
||The school might schedule texts from various religious and
non-religious groups -- one for each game in the season schedule.
Prayers from Christianity, Islam, and Judaism could be chosen for
three games, since these are the most popular religions in the U.S.
Prayers for three other games could be chosen, at random, from smaller
religions that are represented locally. Finally, statements could be
chosen for six other games from Agnostic, Atheist, Ethical Culture,
Humanist, and similar non-religious organizations.|
Although these procedures have not been assessed by the Supreme Court, they
would probably be constitutional since:
||The prayers and statements would have at least three secular
||They would be educational, acquainting students with the
diversity of religious and non-religious beliefs systems in the
||They would promote religious understanding and tolerance.
||They would, hopefully, inspire the players to act honorably
during the game.
||The prayers and statements would neither advance nor inhibit
religion, because they would be balanced by an equal number of
||Excess government (i.e. school board) entanglement could be avoided
by involving students in a volunteer capacity to organize the entire
These solutions would not promote any one religion over other religions; they
would would not
promote religion over a secular life style or vice-versa. They would appear to be
constitutional. However, getting students, parents, the public and the school
board to agree on such an arrangement would probably be quite
impossible. Many would object to the reading of non-religious texts; others
would object to non-Christian prayers being read.
||1963: U.S. Supreme Court ruling: The Court ruled against mandated daily school prayer
in Engel v. Vitale (1962). In 1963, it struck down laws in Pennsylvania and Maryland which mandated
Bible reading and prayer. By extension, this prohibition applied to formal
prayers at school football games and the like, whenever prayer was organized
by school officials.
||1989: 11th Circuit Court ruling: In Jager v. Douglas
Country School District, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals let
stand a lower ruling which found that pre-game invocations by coaches,
officials or students at high school football games were unconstitutional.
||1995: Texas court ruling: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th circuit found that
student led prayers at sporting events were constitutional. They found that
students "are not enjoined from praying, either individually or in
groups. Students may voluntarily pray together, provided such prayer is not done
with school participation or supervision." The implication of this
ruling is that it would be unconstitutional for the school
administration to include a formal prayer in the game schedule. [Doe v. Duncanville
Independent School District, 70 F.3d 402, 405-06 (5th Cir. 1995)]
Copyright © 1999 to 2001 incl., by Ontario Consultants on
Last updated 2001-DEC-3
Author: B.A. Robinson