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PRAYER AT PUBLIC SCHOOL SPORTS EVENTS

COMMENTS ON THE GALVESTON, TX CASE

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Media comments on the U.S. Supreme Court Santa Fe decision:

bulletPeople for the American Way Foundation (PFAWF): President Ralph G. Neas stated in a news release: "The Santa Fe school district tried to promote religion by disguising it as neutral free speech, but the Court has unmasked the district's policy for what it is - unconstitutional, school-sponsored, captive-audience prayer. This school district has a history of crossing the line, time and again, by favoring, if not coercing, religious expression. But the Court saw through this subterfuge and upheld the Constitution and its guarantee of religious liberty for all Americans, regardless of their beliefs." In an apparent reference to George W Bush's statements on nominating Supreme Court justices if he were to become president, Ralph Neas commented: "The narrowness of this decision is troubling and it indicates how dramatically one or two more right-wing Justices would shift the balance and redefine Americans' fundamental religious liberty." The next president will nominate from two to four new justices.
bullet National Network of Youth Ministries: National director Paul Fleischmann stated that the court is sending a message to students "that religion has no relevance in daily life. I think it shows there is hostility to religion in our society. It's disappointing, it's probably not going to get any better, and we probably have to expect more decisions that are anti-religion." He continued: "We are all up in arms about school violence on campus, and here is something positive and constructive" that is being curtailed. [The decision reflects] a humanistic, relativistic view that God has nothing to do with daily life." His network sponsors the See You At the Pole prayer events. 1
bullet Family Research Foundation: The FRC is a Fundamentalist Christian group which is pro-life and opposed to equal rights for homosexuals. The Associated Press reported that FRC spokesperson Jan LaRue said that the government's response to religion has become "malevolent hostility.7  Crystal Roberts of the FRC later commented on another matter, and referred to the court's "harsh June 19 decision striking down student-led prayer before football game, and placed religious values under attack." 2
bullet American Center for Law and Justice: This is a Fundamentalist Christian legal group. Chief counsel Jay Sekulow said that the ruling "distorts the First Amendment by exhibiting hostility toward student speech. It is the free speech of the students that has been censored.1
bullet American Jewish Committee: Spokesperson David Harris hailed the court ruling. He said that "private religious expression [is protected but] officially sanctioned religious observances are not.1
bulletThe Texas Pagan Awareness League: TXPAL director Jon Edens said, in a news release: "The Supreme Court’s decision shows an understanding by the Court that minority religions can be and have been discriminated against in schools. TXPAL supports the opportunity for students to pray silently or meet in religious groups. The recent ruling does not negate this right, but it does protect those of minority religions from feeling pressured to conform." 3
bulletChristian Liberty Legal Institute: Spokesperson Kelly Shackelford said that the court ruling is "dangerous....The court is now beginning to censor the religious speech of private citizens.  This is wrong."
bulletFellowship of Christian Athletes: Spokesperson Dal Shealy said that the court's ruling is "a bizarre and ironic intrusion...While we're seeing the blossoming of spiritual life among the nation's athletes, our highest court has shown barren hostility to all thing religious in public life. [The Fellowship of Christian Athletes] has one warning for the Supreme Court: If we choose to remove truly positive influences such as prayer from our schools, we must no longer be perplexed when appalling tragedies become increasingly and disturbingly common." 
bulletOther comments: 
bulletWhile campaigning in Vancouver, WA, for the Presidency, Governor George W. Bush indicated disappointment with the court ruling. He said:  "I thought voluntary student-led prayer at extracurricular activities was right and important, and the Supreme Court thought otherwise...
bulletA spokesperson for Vice President Al Gore said that the court "reached the right decision in the case." He also mentioned that Mr. Gore supports "private prayer in school and at school-related events as long as participation is truly voluntary and follows the guidelines (Education) Secretary Riley recently issued detailing what is suitable within the school environment."4,5
bulletDebbie Mason, an American Baptist and spokeswoman for the plaintiffs said that she was "so happy my whole body was shaking."

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Public reaction to the Supreme Court ruling:

bulletPrayer Warriors at Santa Fe: Some Christian groups in Texas organized a prayer event at the Houston Astrodome for the Santa Fe Indians opening football game on 2000-SEP-1. Local pastor  Del Toler of Santa Fe's Calvary Crossroads Church commented: "We are not renegades or rebels. We are patriots. We do not like being told that we can't pray." One group called "No Pray, No Play" ™ urged on their Internet site that Christians across the state come to Santa Fe by the thousands to recite the Lord's Prayer immediately after the national anthem. 6 They didn't materialize in large numbers. Visitors from across the state were among the group of 150 attendees who stood outside the stadium gate to join in the Lord's Prayer. Reports differ on the results in the stands. The Houston Chronicle said that "virtually all of the fans at Santa Fe High School's opening game Friday recited the Lord's Prayer just before kickoff." CNN reported that only about 24 fans recited the prayer. Judging by the CNN sound track, relatively few people joined in.  After the game, Dale Toler said: "I was very pleased with it. This was exactly what I anticipated. I didn't want to see a mob...It was done in an orderly fashion, we made our statement and we upheld our belief in free speech." He explained that demonstrating free speech was the purpose behind the prayer event: "that people can pray here or at a restaurant, as well as in their homes." He concluded: "The Supreme Court did not rule that we could not pray. It said the school could not sanction [prayer]. This way, everyone has the right to pray, whether they're Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist or Muslim."

School Superintendent Richard Ownby said that townspeople had told him that they wished No Pray, No Play had not been involved: "If they'd really had the interests of Santa Fe at heart, they would have tried to work with the local ministerial alliance and others here rather than doing this from the outside and bringing everybody in later. Most of the comments I've heard have been that people here wish they'd done it in their own town and just let us go on about our business."
bulletForest City, NC: Since the U.S. Supreme Court prevented school-sponsored prayers over the PA system, pastor Danny Jones figured out an alternative approach. He broadcast a prayer from the press box of the Chase High School stadium over a local radio station. Christians who had brought batter powered radios cranked up the volume so that the prayer was heard clearly in the stands: "Father in heaven, please bless the game. Give us safety; give us a good spirit of sportsmanship.7
bulletYellville AR: The local school board organized a prayer demonstration in open violation of the Supreme Court ruling. They organized Yellville-Summit High School students and cheerleaders to line up on the 50 yard line, kneel and pray. The cheerleaders switched their pom-poms with banners containing biblical passages. 14
bulletKnox: Hanna Wood, 17, an assistant football trainer and local official of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes organized 250 people to form a human prayer chain on the asphalt track around the football field. School officials said that they could not have stopped the event. 7

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What does the Bible say; What would Jesus do?

The Gospel of Matthew has a passage that appears to fit the "No Pray, No Play" ™ group with amazing precision. Yeshua of Nazareth (Jesus Christ) is recorded as saying:

Matthew 6:5-6: "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....when thou prayest, enter into thy closet and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret...."

The reference to go into thy closet has been translated in other versions of the Bible as "go into your inner room." "go away by yourself," "all alone," "your [most] private room," "enter into thy chamber," and "go into your room."

The message of Matthew 6:6, clearly implies that:

bulletJesus condemns prayers in situations where other people are present, when the aim is to make a public display of one's religious practice. Jesus cited prayer in synagogues and in the streets, but it would seem to apply equally to sports events attended by the public.
bulletJesus felt that prayers are to be an intensely personal event between a person and their God; no one else should be present.

As Melissa Rogers, General Counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee wrote: "It seems to me that Jesus was speaking to the spirit in which we pray. To me, this passage means that if we are praying to be seen by others, we're in trouble." 8

The Bible, other writings of the early Christian movement, and the Jewish Talmud stress the Golden Rule: that one should do onto others as you would have them do onto you:

bullet Matthew 7:12: "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them."  
bullet Gospel of Thomas 6: "...and don't do what you hate..." The Gospel of Thomas is one of about 40 gospels that were widely accepted among early Christians, but which never made it into the Christian Scriptures (New Testament).
bulletTalmud, Shabbat 31a: "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. This is the law: all the rest is commentary."

The recital of a prayer at a sports event is almost certain to distress followers of other religions.  Applying the Golden Rule in this situation would imply that such distress should be avoided. 

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Sponsored link:

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Reporting inaccuracies:

Reactions to the U.S. Supreme Court decision generally fell into two groups:

bulletConservative Christians generally blasted the ruling, implying incorrectly that the court prohibited all student-led prayers. For example, ReligionToday, which is normally very precise in their news reporting, stated that "The U.S. Supreme Court voted June 19 to ban prayers before football games at public high schools, saying they violate the Constitution...
bulletNews releases from other sources generally noted that the court affirmed the right of students to initiate prayer at school and at sports events, but that school-organized invocations were declared unconstitutional.

The latter group reported accurately. In fact, the court reconfirmed the right of any student to pray before, during or after football games, and before, during or after school. For example, any player can kneel and pray in the lockers or on the field. Anybody in the viewing stands can pray. Any attendee can organize an impromptu prayer session with others around them. What the court found unconstitutional was any action by the school administration to organize a formal prayer to be read over the PA system, typically before the start of the game.

It is not obvious whether the conservative Christian reactions are due to a misunderstanding of the court ruling, or whether they are deliberate attempts to mislead the public. Either way, they risk losing credibility with the public.

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Author's opinions:

I was disturbed by a number of developments in the Galveston case:

bulletMany school districts across Texas disobeyed the court injunction and continued to hold prayers at sports events. They seem to value the preservation of their traditions and culture above the rule of law. That is a hazardous message to teach children, particularly as Texas and the rest of North America becomes more religiously diverse in the decades to come.
bulletA number of conservative Christian commentators have said that prohibiting organized prayers will increase the potential for school violence. The opposite may well happen: forcing non-Christians to participate in Christian prayers would have marginalized followers of minority religions. Marginalizing a minority group was the prime cause of school violence in the Columbine case, and at many other school shootings.
bulletThere are at least two reasons why Christians should not pray at school football games:
bulletMatthew 6:5-6 forbids it.
bulletThose who pray must know that their action adversely affects non-Christians in the audience, and leaves them feeling left out, and marginalized. The Golden Rule, (to do onto others as you would have them do onto you), would seem to prohibit public prayer.

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References:

  1. "Court sacks prayer before football games," ReligionToday feature story for 2000-JUN-20, at:  http://religiontoday.crosswalk.com/
  2. Martha Kleder, "Evolution disclaimer dies," Focus on the Family, at: http://www.family.org/cforum/fnif/news/A0011883.html 
  3. The Texas Pagan Awareness League's press release of 2000-JUN-20 can be accessed at: http://www.txpal.org/
  4. Peter Kickbush, "Religious Expression in Public Schools," 1995-AUG-29, at:  http://www.ed.gov/MailingLists/EDInfo/msg00029.html
  5. "Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law." at: http://www.ed.gov/Speeches/04-1995/prayer.html
  6. "No pray. No Play" ™ has a web site at: http://www.nopraynoplay.org/index.htm 
  7. Timothy Roche, "Too much like a prayer? Flouting a Supreme Court ban on the practice, football fans appeal to the Lord on game day" CNN.com, 2000-SEP-11, at: http://www.cnn.com/ALLPOLITICS/time/2000/09/18/
  8. Melissa Rogers, "Public prayer at football games: What would Jesus do?," The Report from the Capital, Baptist Joint Committee, Vol. 55, #18, 2000-SEP-12, Page 3.

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Copyright © 1999 to 2001 incl., by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Created 1999-NOV-7
Last updated 2001-DEC-2
Author: B.A. Robinson

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