Prayer, Proselytizing and High School Football

How a Georgia Family Scored a Touchdown for the Constitution

 

After six years of listening to clergy-led prayers blaring over the loudspeakers before football games at Haralson County High School, Frank McIntire had heard enough.

“[My wife Sarah and I] felt it was going a little too far,” McIntire told Church & State. “When the preacher said things like, ‘Thank you, Lord, for sending Jesus down to die for our sins,’ now it’s a sermon. I believe people have the right to pray but there are guidelines under the law.”

Now, thanks to complaints by Americans United and the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), the McIntires have achieved their goal of ending the official pre-game invocations. When the Haralson County High School Rebels played their home opener on Sept. 7, it marked the first time in more than 50 years that no formal prayer was heard in the stadium.  

“We were happy that we had succeeded,” McIntire said.

High school football is almost a religion in many communities throughout the United States, so maybe it’s no real surprise that every year there are multiple public schools that offer some sort of official prayer before games or otherwise entangle the school with religion.

In the case of Haralson County High School, located in Tallapoosa, Ga., which is about 50 miles due west of Atlanta, the school football team had an official chaplain for at least 15 years who led students in prayer before games in addition to praying over the loudspeaker.

The McIntires, whose son Scott is a junior who primarily plays on the offensive line for Haralson County High, first tried to put a stop to the official prayers before the 2012 season without involving lawyers.

Although McIntire doesn’t refer to himself as an atheist, he was offended because many of the prayers asked everyone in attendance to accept Jesus Christ. So McIntire contacted the Rev. Mason Bush of Providence Baptist Church in Tallapoosa because Bush had been the official team chaplain for 15 years, prayed with the football team before games and led the prayers over the loudspeaker. When McIntire asked Bush to tone down the sectarian character of his messages, the pastor flatly refused.

The Georgia dad hoped for a better result from the principal at Haralson County High, but the school official “blew it off.” The McIntires also contacted the school district superintendent, and though he brought the matter before the school board, the board didn’t want to take any action, either.

When they didn’t get the response they were looking for, the McIntires turned to both Americans United and the FFRF. In September 2011, the FFRF wrote the Haralson County Schools superintendent to say that pre-game invocations made over a loudspeaker are a violation of the First Amendment. In January 2012, Americans United sent a letter of its own to Haralson County school officials and pointed out that the U.S. Constitution does not permit a public school team to have an official chaplain, in addition to protesting over the official prayers.

In the letter, Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser and Staff Attorney Ian Smith said that by having an official team chaplain the school sends a message that members of the football team are expected to engage in worship and that the school district “believes life’s problems necessarily call for spiritual guidance” – a theological assertion that not everyone accepts. 

The letter also cited Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, in which the U.S. Supreme Court said in 2000 that prayers at school sporting events “‘bear the imprint of the state and thus put school-age children in an untenable position’” of having to choose between an undesired religious exercise and missing out on a school activity.  

These letters eventually achieved what the McIntires had hoped for: an end to the official prayers and the resignation of the team chaplain before the first home game of the 2012 season.

“The Haralson County School System strives to provide the best learning environment possible for all of our students,” Haralson County Schools Superintendent Brett Stanton said in a statement that was released to local media. “We have recently been faced with the threat of legal action regarding prayer from the public address system before home football games. I have a responsibility to protect the school system from litigation. This is very difficult for our board members, employees and for me, but until the laws are changed, we will abide by the guidelines set forth by the Constitution of the United States.”

Despite his action, Stanton said he couldn’t get behind his own decision.

“Personally, it saddens me since my faith is a very important part of my life,” he observed. 

Many in the community shared that sentiment. In a column that appeared Sept. 1 in the Tallapoosa Journal, Bud Jones wrote that he doesn’t much care for the work of Americans United, which for some reason he believes is based in Montana. 

“I think it’s high time that the people of Haralson County wake up and tell the members of our school board that we are behind them and that we do not want any lawyers from Montana or Wisconsin telling us what we can and cannot do,” said Jones, who describes himself as a “renowned taxidermist” and “published author.”

Before the Sept. 7 game, which began with an official moment of silence rather than a prayer, the American Family Association’s OneNewsNow reported that some parents and students instead said the Lord’s Prayer together before kickoff. MyFoxAtlanta.com reported that students and parents also held their own prayer circles before the game and some wore t-shirts that read, “Rebels Pray Before We Play,” and “Proud to be a Rebel and I Still Pray.”

McIntire said protest activities have “started to die down,” and he estimated that by the end of the season, just a few people will be taking part in them. 

Former team chaplain Bush said he was pleased by the support for prayer. (As it happened, the Rebels lost their home opener 32-14 and were 3-2 at press time.)

“I think we have made an impact and sent a message,” Bush told the Times-Georgian. “Prayer is important, no matter what religion it is.”

While prayer is important to many people, the issue here wasn’t about whether or not people can pray at football games, said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director.

“No one is saying that football fans and players can’t pray on their own before a game,” Lynn told Church & State. “So to make prayer itself into some sort of defiant act is missing the point. Our complaint was about a public school endorsing religion, which is unconstitutional.”

Smith told Church & State that Americans United does not plan any further action in Haralson County at this time. But he was quick to add that AU will be “keeping an eye on what’s happening to make sure there’s no backsliding.”

While it is good to see that the situation in Haralson County has been resolved, it is far from the only instance of a public school allowing religion to permeate football games this fall. In what may be a brewing legal showdown in Texas, the cheerleaders at Kountze High School in Kountze (about 90 miles northeast of Houston) had been using banners with Bible verses to motivate the football team during games. School administrators, however, received a complaint and ordered the practice stopped.   

Examples of signs included: “But thanks be to God, which gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me” and “If God be for us who can be against us?”

Now some of the squad members and their parents are gearing up for a legal fight. At least three parents of cheerleaders have hired Beaumont attorney David Starnes, KIII-TV, the ABC affiliate in Corpus Christi, reported. Starnes has filed a discrimination lawsuit and on Sept. 20, Hardin County District Judge Steven Thomas granted a temporary restraining order that will allow the cheerleaders to display their signs at games – at least for now, the Houston Chronicle reported.

The cheerleaders said making the banners was their personal choice and that the signs were made with supplies purchased by students and not the school.

According to KBTV, a Fox affiliate in Beaumont, cheerleader Meagan Tantillo came up with the Bible-verse idea.

“We wanted to be a motivation for our boys,” she said.

At press time, the team was undefeated and the cheerleaders said that their signs have inspired the players to victory.

“They weren’t getting very fired up by ‘Kill the Cougars,’ so if we say ‘you have power, God gives you the strength,’ I mean, that makes me want to do good,” Ashton Jennings, a Kountze cheerleader, told KBTV.

There also seems to be quite a bit of community support for both the signs and the sign makers. A Facebook group called “Support Kountze Kids Faith” had almost 45,000 members at press time, and a blog called “Texas Conservative Republican News” announced that there would be “a big rally with lots of posters to show support for these students” at an Oct. 5 football game.

Once word of the Kountze cheerleaders’ sign crusade spread, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott offered the support of his office.

“If you decide to allow the cheerleaders of Kountze High to freely display their chosen message on their banners at football games,” Abbott told Kountze Independent School District Superintendent Kevin Weldon, “and if the Freedom From Religion Foundation or any other group sues Kountze ISD as a result, my office stands ready to file a brief with the court protecting the cheerleaders’ religious liberties.”

The situation in Kountze was still evolving as Church & State went press.

Meanwhile, at another Georgia high school, a football coach is under fire from supporters of church-state separation for proselytizing. The FFRF has accused Mark Mariakis, football coach at Ridgeland High School in Rossville, Ga., of taking his team to churches for meals and proselytizing, leading players in prayer, putting Bible verses on team clothing and pressuring his players to attend Christian football camps during the summer.

Almost instantly after the FFRF complaint was made public, a Facebook community page called “Support Coach Mariakis” popped up. It had more than 11,000 “likes” at press time. One supporter posted on the page: “I really dont no (sic) wat (sic) happen from when I went 2 school we had prayer an sang the Pledge of Alligance (sic) wat (sic) has happen 2 people tryin (sic) 2 stop prayer anywhere God will judge those people.”  

From another supporter: “Shake it off coach. There are so many to get saved, and so little time. Dont (sic) back down.” 

At press time, Mariakis still had his coaching job. Walker County, Ga., school officials said Ridgeland High School isn’t in violation of the First Amendment, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported.

Walker Superintendent Damon Raines praised Mariakis, stating, “We have seen a large number of students stay in school and complete their program of study resulting in graduation.” 

With public prayer before football games so common and with many schools and communities reluctant to stop their practices even though they may be unconstitutional, it takes tremendous resolve to bring about change.

In Haralson County, McIntire said he didn’t receive any actual threats, but many people tried to intimidate him.

“But you’re not going to intimidate me,” he asserted, noting that he also received quite a bit of support from others in his community who didn’t care for the prayer but were afraid to step forward. 

Lynn said he admired the McIntires’ courage.

“We need more people like the Mc­Intires,” he said. “Americans United is always ready to fight for church-state separation, but it’s important to have allies in the community.”