Written by Don Byrd

The superintendent of Alabama’s Trussville City schools received a letter this week demanding the district “end the practice of broadcasting prayer over the loudspeaker at football games,” following complaints from a parent. A recent game, the letter explains, included prayer that stated “Father, today we play as two separate teams, but we live as one body of Christ, as your hands and feet. And through it all we will play… ultimately to further your kingdom.”

What’s the big deal? Why can’t public school districts open their sporting events with a prayer over the loudspeaker? What’s wrong with praying for health, safety, and good sportsmanship if most all attendees feel the same way? Those are sentiments commonly expressed (with varying tones) by residents and other prayer supporters in the comments section  of the al.com news report on the story. Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken pretty directly on this issue, in a 2000 case, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe. I thought it might be worth a blog post to revisit that important church-state opinion in light of Trussville, and other similar controversies that consistently arise during football season.

Santa Fe is a Texas school district with, at the time of the case, one public high school serving the entire community. The plaintiffs were one Mormon and one Catholic family, who alleged that the district engaged in widespread proselytizing and improper religious promotion, including prayers at football games, in violation of the Establishment Clause. The district in response initiated a policy directing students to vote on whether to have a prayer at games, and if they voted yes would also decide on which volunteer student should deliver those invocations.

Because the prayers were student-initiated through the vote, the district argued, they were protected individual religious exercise and not prohibited government-sponsored religion. And because the games are voluntary school events, their position continued, students are not unlawfully coerced to participate in religious observances in violation of the Constitution. Any people offended by the prayers, the district maintained, could just stay home. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, disagreed with the school district and affirmed a 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that held the prayer policy unconstitutional. 

First, the Court ruled, the prayers are indeed government speech.

“These invocations are authorized by government policy and take place on government property at government-sponsored school-related events.” Far from allowing all students individual access to the microphone before a game, the Court added, the district’s policy “does nothing to protect minority views but rather places the students who hold such views at the mercy of the majority.” In the context of a regularly scheduled school event, where students were allowed to vote on whether to deliver a religious message, the Court concluded that a student of the school “will unquestionably perceive the inevitable pregame prayer as stamped with her school’s seal of approval.”

Second, the Court emphasized that the Constitution does not permit schools to force students to choose between being full participants in their school community and adhering to their conscience in matters of religion. Football game attendance is not voluntary for those who wish to participate as band members or cheerleaders. And beyond that, “High School home football games are traditional gatherings of a school community.”

Most forcefully, the Court quoted a prior religion in schools case, Lee v. Weisman to drive home this point. The passage seems well suited as a response to those comments I read from residents upset about the current Trussville controversy:

“What to most believers may seem nothing more than a reasonable request that the nonbeliever respect their religious practices, in a school context may appear to the nonbeliever or dissenter to be an attempt to employ the machinery of the State to enforce a religious orthodoxy.” The constitutional command will not permit the District “to exact religious conformity from a student as the price” of joining her classmates at a varsity football game.

It may be true that a majority of Trussville students would vote for their football games to open with a solemnizing Christian prayer. But our constitutional rights are not and must not be subject to a majority vote. If it is to serve any true religious liberty purpose, the First Amendment must protect the views of the minority.

But it is equally important to recall that the plaintiffs in the Santa Fe case were Christian families. They recognized that the government’s promotion of Christianity, even indirectly, does no favors to our faith. As the Baptist Joint Committee often says, religion must be voluntary to be vital. Soul freedom is inhibited, not advanced, when prayers are issued at the behest of government policies and delivered over the government’s loudspeaker. 

Students and their families should not have to choose between being a full participant in their school on one hand and their faith on the other. Football game attendees are of course free to pray on their own and no doubt they do, before, during, and after the game. But public schools serve all students, regardless of faith. As extensions of the government, their policies and practices should unify those communities, not divide them along religious lines. Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court in Santa Fe recognized the importance of this protection as ensured by the Constitution’s Establishment Clause.