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Topics covered in this essay:

bullet Overview of court decisions and the First Amendment
bullet Is there any way to legally allow prayers at public school games?
bullet Historical court rulings

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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, (in schools where 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 school games:

bullet An individual student player or sports fan can engage in prayer by themselves at school games.
bullet 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:

bullet Promoting a particular religion (typically Christianity).
bullet Promoting religion in general as superior to secularism.
bullet Promoting secularism in general as superior to religion.

Court rulings seemed to have agreed that:

bullet School officials may not add a prayer of their choosing to the game's program.
bullet 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 student.
bullet A single student or group of students in the stands or on the playing field can freely engage in a spontaneous prayer of their own choosing and timing.

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 start of the game for a student to make a statement. This has always (or almost always) been in the form of a religious invocation -- an historical tradition in Texas. 

bullet 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 involvement.
bullet 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, the U.S. Supreme Court decision decided that public schools cannot constitutionally organize school prayers at games and similar regular events.

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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, 1971

"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.
bullet First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose;
bullet second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion...; 
bullet finally, the statute must not foster 'an excessive government entanglement with religion.' "

Three methods by which a prayer, invocation, or similar recitation could probably be legally scheduled are: 

bulletThe 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, perhaps urging fair play, moral behavior and honorable conduct by the athletes.

The school could organize a moment of silence before the game. That would leave participants and observers the choice of private prayer, meditation. etc.
bulletThe 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 inspiring quotes from Agnostic, Atheist, Ethical Culture, Humanist, secular, and similar non-religious organizations.

Although these procedures have not been assessed by the Supreme Court, they would probably be constitutional since:

bulletThe prayers and statements would have at least three secular purposes: 
bullet They would be educational, acquainting students with the diversity of religious and non-religious beliefs systems in the country.
bullet They would promote religious understanding and tolerance.
bullet They would, hopefully, inspire the players to act honorably during the game.
bulletThe prayers and statements would neither advance nor inhibit religion, because they would be balanced by an equal number of non-religious texts.
bulletExcess government (i.e. school board) entanglement could be avoided by involving students in a volunteer capacity to organize the entire procedure.

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.

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Some court rulings and school board decisions:

bullet 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.
bullet 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.
bullet 1995: Texas court ruling: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th circuit found that informal student-initiated, 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)]


2018: Alabama Blount County School District decision: A complaint was received 1 from an organization that was later identified as the Freedom From Religion Foundation. 2 The School District consulted with their lawyers and decided to ban their traditional Christian prayer before games and substitute a moment of silence. Some local people were disappointed.

Scott Wortham, a youth minister at the First Baptist Church in Remlap, AL said:

"We really see no harm in praying for the welfare of our football players, and those that will be out playing, protection, and good sportsmanship. ... We believe that is an integral part of our life, we believe that to be able to pray, the bible tells us to pray without ceasing."

Alecia Melvin, who also lives in the county, said:

"I feel like we as Christians are being silenced and so we have to go with the majority that is very loud."

Some visitors to the CBS web site had some interesting comments -- some of which were difficult to understand because the grammar was so bad. One person asked that a comment be re-written and asked: "Can we try this again in English?" Various postings included:

  • A wish that schools would refused to be bullied by outside threats; they should fight back, and stand up.

  • Support for the banning of public prayer because it might be given by a Mormon, Muslim, or New Age follower who she feels believe in false Gods.

  • One comment said: "It seems that satan thorugh " [sic] been threatened with lawsuits by outside organizations ' has againl [sic] lifted his head, so it is time to put on the whole armon [sic] of God Eph 6:10-20. So that we will be able to stand agaist [sic] the schems [sic] of the devil, after the battle is won, amen,"

Four local Baptist churches and a United Methodist church purchased 1,000 T-Shirts with "We Believe" written on the front, and the Lord's Prayer from Matthew 6 on the back. They were distributed at no cost to spectators of a school game on SEP-21.

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The following information source was used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.

  1. Michael Clark, "Prayer no longer allowed over loudspeaker before Blount County Schools' football games,", 2018-SEP-20, at:
  2. "Community responds with 'We Believe' shirts after pre-game prayer banned in Blount County,", 2018-SEP-22, at:
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Copyright 1999 to 2018, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Created 1999-NOV-07
Last updated 2018-SEP-25
Author: B.A. Robinson

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