The Team That Didn’t Have a Prayer

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken September 17, 2000

High school football under the Friday-night lights is a great Texas tradition. However, this fall something is missing from the pre-game routine. As a result of the Supreme Court decision in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, students are no longer allowed to offer public prayers before football games to promote safety and sportsmanship. Formerly, the school district had allowed students to elect a representative to offer an invocation over the loudspeaker before every home game. But now traditional pre-game prayers are banned.

Predictably, the Supreme Court decision appealed to the so-called “separation of church and state.” By a majority of 6-3, the justices ruled that student-led, student-initiated public prayer before a sporting event is not protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. On the contrary, such prayer is unconstitutional because it represents the establishment of religion.

Writing for the Court, Justice John Paul Stevens argued that “School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community. The delivery of such a message-over the school’s public address system by a speaker representing the student body, under the supervision of school faculty and pursuant to a school policy that explicitly and implicitly encourages public prayer-is not properly characterized as ‘private’ speech.” Stevens also claimed that “The religious liberty protected by the Constitution is abridged when the state affirmatively sponsors the particular religious practice of prayer.”

The ban on pre-game prayer is the latest and strongest in a long line of Supreme Court decisions opposing prayer in the public schools. It has prompted a blitz of protest all over the South. In Forest City, North Carolina, football fans brought portable radios to tune in to a prayer broadcast just before kickoff. In Hattiesburg, Mississippi, a few students in the bleachers began to say “Our Father who art in Heaven,” and by the time they were finished, more than 4,000 fans were reciting the Lord’s Prayer. In Knoxville, Tennessee, the local chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes formed a human prayer chain on the track surrounding a football field. In Asheville, North Carolina, a rally sponsored by the group “We Still Pray” filled a stadium with 12,000 supporters. And fans at Arkansas’ Yellville-Summit High emptied the stands and rushed to the 50-yard line, where they knelt to pray with their cheerleaders.

It is not surprising that so many students have tried to make an end-run around the Supreme Court. For one thing, two out of three Americans think the Court judged incorrectly. For another thing, the decision in Santa Fe is a blatant attack on Christianity. In his dissent-in which he argued that the Supreme Court had once again fumbled the relationship between church and state-Chief Justice William Rehnquist warned that the majority opinion “bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life.” And so it does. When even something as innocuous as praying before a football game is declared illegal, it cannot be long before Christians will face more severe deprivations. It appears likely that in the future the Santa Fe decision will be used to eliminate other forms of prayer, such as the invocations offered at many public school graduations.

It is easy to understand why the Supreme Court ban has angered so many Christians. It is also easy to admire the courage and creativity of those who have found ways to circumvent it. Nevertheless, it is worth asking whether it is wise to use pre-game prayer as a political football. One problem with the recent rash of civil disobedience is that it turns prayer into a form of political protest. This is not entirely the church’s fault. After all, it was the Supreme Court that first politicized the issue by ruling that pre-game prayer was an abuse of political power. But Christians should resist the temptation to treat everything as a matter of politics. Prayer is the most powerful weapon in our arsenal, but it is not a political weapon. Instead, God uses it to advance his spiritual kingdom.

Another problem with the pre-game prayer is that it turns prayer into a public spectacle. It is not wrong to pray in public, of course. The Bible encourages us to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers” (Eph. 6:18). It also urges “requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving to be made for everyone” (1 Tim. 2:1), including high-school football players. However, there may be times when it is inappropriate to pray out loud and in public. Jesus placed his emphasis on private prayer. “And when you pray,” he said, “do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men… . But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen” (Matt. 6:5-6).

Jesus emphasized private intercession because he understood how easy it is for prayer to lead to hypocrisy, especially when it is offered to make someone else take notice. I am reminded of the college student who was trying to convert his roommate to Christianity. When he heard him coming back from a late-night party, he would hop out of bed and say his prayers-kneeling in the middle of the room so his roommate would trip over him in the dark!

True prayer is never offered to get in someone’s way, or to make a political point, but to enter the presence of God with praises and petitions. If God is our true audience, we will not find it necessary to pray at the fifty-yard line. And if he has ceased to be our audience, we have ceased truly to pray.

[Sources for this Window on the World include Geraldine Sealey, “Court Bans Pre-Game Prayer,” ABCNEWS.com, 6/19/00; Joan Biskupic, “School prayer rejected,” and other articles in USA Today, 6/20/00, A; Edward Walsh and Bill Miller, “Praying before playing is barred,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/20/00, A1; and Timothy Roche, “Too Much Like a Prayer?” TIME, 9/18/00, 59]

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