Righteous Revolution Or Constitutional Quagmire

Football Prayer Fans Are Trying An End-Run Around The Supreme Court's Ruling

For Kody Shed, the start of Texas' high school football season is the beginning of a "righteous revolution."

Frustrated by the Supreme Court decision barring school-sponsored invocations at athletic events, Shed sought a way to circumvent the ruling and keep prayer as an integral part of the pre-game activities. The 27-year-old lay worship leader in Temple, Texas, came up with a plan wherein thousands of people in stadiums throughout the Lone Star State would remain standing after the national anthem and recite the Lord's Prayer. Since the invocation would be without support or encouragement from schools, he saw no legal difficulties for the project.

To implement the strategy, Shed traveled the state throughout the summer, distributing T-shirts, meeting with religious leaders and spreading his sound bite: No Pray, No Play.

"The Supreme Court has said to cease to pray, but the Bible says to pray without ceasing," Shed remarked in an online message to supporters. "The public school's hands are tied, but your's [sic] are not! Will you sit, snooze and lose your rights, or plan to stand and pray?"

The No Pray No Play project is not unique. In fact, as students returned for a new school year this fall, many communities were dealing with a fresh round of controversies surrounding football prayer. Despite the unambiguous ruling from the Supreme Court in June, a number of groups creatively sought out legal methods to impose prayer on high school football game audiences.

As long as the school is not involved in any way in promoting the religious exercises, most believe these efforts are legally permissible. Whether the prayers are appropriate, however, remain in question.

"It strikes me that praying as part of a protest of a Supreme Court ruling is using prayer as a kind of weapon or an act of spiritual intimidation against those who dare to be something other than their brand of Christianity," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "For these folks, prayer isn't an expression of piety but more of a statement of power: we are the biggest, most powerful religious group and we want everybody to know it. People who pray with this attitude are bullies. They may be exercising free speech but they're hardly practicing the message of Christianity."

The activities come in direct response to the high court's Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe ruling, handed down in June. In the 6-3 decision, the justices clearly articulated the appropriate role religion should play at public school athletic events.

Writing for the court majority, Justice John Paul Stevens explained that a scheme developed by the school district in Santa Fe, Texas, that allowed students to elect a classmate to deliver a prayer prior to football games, was in conflict with the First Amendment.

"Such a system," insisted Stevens, "encourages divisiveness along religious lines and threatens the imposition of coercion upon those students not desiring to participate in a religious exercise."

However, the high court's decision dealt specifically with school promotion of religion and did not ban praying at football games.

"[N]othing in the Constitution as interpreted by this Court prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during or after the school day," Stevens wrote.

Apparently Shed and others like him have overlooked this part of the ruling and think individual rights to pray are being restricted.

Shed's No Pray No Play may be only one of a handful of groups spending months preparing and strategizing for "spontaneous" outbursts at football games, but over the summer, it quickly became the most vocal and organized of the groups.

From a rhetorical perspective, No Pray No Play uses strident language to deliver its pro-football prayer message. The group's materials, for example, suggest that its position is not only right, but also one with God. "If you believe in the God of the Bible, you must realize that the devil wants to kill, steal, and destroy your freedom!," the group explains. No Pray No Play also believes people can "resist the Devil" by participating in the recitation of the Lord's Prayer before high school football games.

While the Lord's Prayer is currently at the top of Shed's agenda, during an interview with a newsletter published by Focus on the Family, the Colorado-based Reli­gious Right group headed by James Dobson, No Pray No Play's founder suggested he has even broader plans in the future.

"This isn't one person, or a powerful ministry doing this," Shed said. "This is Al­mighty God renewing the purpose in America. I believe this is the beginning of a righteous revolution."

In a separate interview with the Dallas Morning News, Shed acknowledged that his tolerance is limited to those who share his religious beliefs.

"I believe the Bible teaches that you are either for God or against God," Shed said. He added, "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters," a refer­ence to the Book of Matthew 12:30.

Shed's defining mo­ment took place in Santa Fe on Sept. 1 at the same football field that launched the landmark legal controversy. No Pray No Play had worked for months to use this game, the high school's season opener, as an opportunity to send a message. Ultimately, it was a message that very few people heard.

The capacity crowd of 4,500 stood for the national anthem, which was followed by the announcer introducing the visiting team, the home team and the coin flip. Apparently, people who planned to pray together got confused about exactly when to start, and as a result, only about 200 remained standing to recite the Lord's Prayer.

Depending on your perspective, the evening's pre-game activities were either a terrible failure or an ordinary start to the football season.

For those who had hoped to hear prayers en masse, the result was disappointing.

"It was obvious that the announcer jumped right in after the anthem, and then it was too late to do anything," Becky Frye, a local parent, told the Associated Press. "If people could have appointed a leader for every section, we could have overcome the speaker."

Others, meanwhile, were troubled by the protesters' disappointment.

"After the national anthem, those who wanted to pray stood and recited their prayer," said AU's Lynn. "So why were they disappointed? These same people insisted that this exercise was merely about their right to pray. It seems, based on their comments, that they were frustrated by their failure to impose their prayers on everyone. To me, that speaks volumes."

Lynn was far from alone in his criticism of the pre-game prayer efforts. In fact, from across the religious and political spectrum, many have expressed disapproval of the entire project because of the adverse effects for religion.

"For me, it reduces matters of faith to something like doing the wave," said Rabbi David Stern of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, as quoted by the Dallas Morning News. "Theologically, I think it ends up cheapening the holy."

Observed syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts, "Beyond showcasing a certain stubborn, hell-no-we-won't-go pugnacity, it's hard to see what these folks expect to get out of this, either for themselves or for their faith." He added, "Unfortunately for those who consider the invisibility or intimidation of non-Christians a worthy goal, the United States is not...a 'Christian nation.' Christianity is the majority religion, yes, but this isn't a theocracy. It is, rather, a nation of laws, many of them written specifically to protect the despised minority from the tyrannical majority."

Even arch-conservative commentator Cal Thomas, who rarely misses an opportunity to attack public schools, dedicated a recent column to criticism of those who wish to announce their prayer at football games.

"Apparently some people have such an inferiority complex about their faith that they need to see it trumpeted before the world," Thomas said. "It is an in-your-face faith rather than an in-your-heart variety. It smacks of triumphalism that is foreign to its Founder. It was Jesus, after all, who frequently separated himself from the crowds in order to pray in private.

"Some say that praying before a football game should be allowed because it is 'traditional,'" Thomas added. "That view mocks both tradition and prayer. Instead of trying to devise prayers that will be approved by the Supreme Court, prayers that are bound to be empty of content and meaningless, prayer 'activists' should be concerned with prayers that fulfill the instructions of Jesus of Nazareth and reach the ears and earn the approval not of the Supreme Court but of the Supreme Judge."

No Pray No Play's scheme may not have lived up to billing in Santa Fe, but similar projects have been implemented in several communities, particularly in the southeast between Texas and the Carolinas.

In Hattiesburg, Miss., most of a crowd of 4,500 stood to recite a prayer before a game at North Forrest High School on Aug. 26. A local ministerial group distributed pamphlets as the crowd arrived, with the text of the Lord's Prayer and a message urging people to participate.

In Forest City, N.C., a radio station turned over its signal for a pastor to read the Lord's Prayer. People in attendance at the high school game were encouraged to bring radios and turn up the volume so that the prayer could be broadcast in the stadium without use of the public address system.

In Spartanburg, S.C., the school board initially indicated that they were planning to defy the Supreme Court's ruling and allow students to lead prayers over the public address system as part of the pre-game announcements. Americans United's legal department contacted the board, informing its members that they did not have the luxury of ignoring rulings they don't like. The board subsequently changed its mind.

In Ashville, N.C., 25,000 people gathered at a high school stadium to rally in support of pre-game prayer, just days before the start of the season. The rally, organized by a group called We Still Pray, led to prayers at dozens of games throughout the state.

We Still Pray, like its counterparts in Texas, was also organized to promote "spontaneous" group prayer in the bleachers after the national anthem.

According to its materials, We Still Pray adopts a majoritarian approach to public religious exercises where the denomination with the biggest numbers wins. "It's up to the people of each community as to who they are and who they shall worship," the group's website says. "If a community is Mormon, that community should pray to their god. If a community's majority is Buddhist, they should pray to their gods. If the majority of a community is Christian, they should pray to Christ."

Oddly, the group seems committed to promoting the idea that the prayers are spur-of-the-moment and unplanned.

Wendell Runion, an organizer for We Still Pray, touted the benefits of a stadium's audience hearing an "organized spontaneous outbreak of prayer." Apparently unaware of the oxymoronic nature of his comments, Runion also told USA Today they chose the Lord's Prayer because, "if you are going to have organized spontaneity, you have to have something everybody knows that is easy to say."

We Still Pray's interests extend beyond just religious exercises at school athletic events. The group has also adopted a three-pronged agenda: aggressive criticism of the Constitu­tion's separation of church and state, advocating for a constitutional amendment to eradicate the separation principle and praying for the removal of Supreme Court justices who fail to meet the group's standards.

Unfortunately, the group has resorted to using old, long-discredited arguments in attacking the First Amendment.

According to We Still Pray's online materials, the wall separating church and state was "originally introduced as, and understood to be, a one directional wall, protecting the church from the government.... That Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptist [sic] should become a national legal policy is absurd." We Still Pray goes on to emphasize that the church-state separation phrase does not appear in the Constitution, but adds, "There is a Constitution where this phrase was found the former Soviet Union."

We Still Pray also advocates passage of a constitutional amendment to remove church-state separation from the law. Specifically, the group is sponsoring a petition drive to gather congressional support for Rep. Ernest Istook's so-called "Religious Freedom Amendment." The amendment, last considered in the House in June 1998, would allow coercive prayer and religious worship in public schools, require government to give tax aid to churches and church schools and permit government to display religious symbols.

As for the Supreme Court, We Still Pray publishes materials that read, "Pray for God to Replace the LIBERALS of the Supreme Court!" (emphasis in the original) The group also asks supporters to, "Pray God Bless and Encourage the Conservative Justices," which includes Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

While groups such as We Still Pray and No Pray No Play continue to promote prayer-after-the-anthem schemes, larger Religious Right groups have not only expressed support for the plan, but also begun work to see that these goals are accomplished.

The Christian Coalition, for example, has actively encouraged its supporters to pray before games as a way to express disagreement with the Supreme Court's Santa Fe ruling.

"I think you are going to see more and more spontaneous kinds of rising up against those governmental bodies who are attacking the community of faith," said Sadie Fields, chairman (her preferred term) of the Georgia Christian Coalition. "It is a true infringement on the rights of Christians to display their faith."

The Christian Coalition is not alone. The American Family Association, based in Tupelo, Miss., has issued "action alerts" to its supporters, hoping to rally support for outbursts of prayer at games. AFA President Donald Wildmon said in a press release that this tactic is the ideal because, "[T]here is no way the Supreme Court can stop this because it is simply individuals participating on their own without any leader."

Moreover, the Family Research Council has announced a new project called "National Sing-Out for Religious Freedom," which calls for crowds to sing the obscure and rarely heard third verse of the National Anthem before public school football games because the verse mentions God.

Not to be outdone, the Christian Defense Coalition has announced plans to mark the first weekend in October as a special "prayer weekend." In a statement released by the group's director, the Rev. Patrick Mahoney launched a nationwide push for prayer at football games as part of an effort to "peacefully resist" the Supreme Court's ruling. The Christian Defense Coalition has labeled the project "Daniel 6:10," a reference to the Bible story of Daniel, who refused to follow instructions from the king that conflicted with God's laws.

Activities promoted by groups like No Pray No Play meet legal muster because they represent private speech. Yet there are some who have taken Mahoney's "Daniel 6:10" approach literally and begun actively defying federal law.

In Yellville, Ark., for example, the school board voted 4-1 to allow a student-led prayer to be broadcast over the stadium loudspeaker, despite the Supreme Court's ruling on the matter.

"We're a community that's got 1,100 people, and we've got 11 churches in town," Steve Copeland, the school board president told The Washington Post. "It's a Christian community. And it would have been very hard for me to walk into church if I'd voted against prayer at the games." He added that he's simply going to hope that no one files suit against the community.

Similarly, in Batesburg-Leesville, S.C., the high school's student body president was given access to the stadium's microphone so he could broadcast a prayer to the audience, flagrantly ignoring constitutional law. A nearly identical incident occurred at Etowah High School in Attalla, Ala., at the start of its high school football season.

For AU's Lynn, there is no excuse for these school districts' activities.

"It's ironic that these officials are breaking the law while claiming to do the right thing," Lynn said. "They're setting a terrible example for young people by teaching them it's okay to ignore the law when you disagree with it."

Ultimately, Lynn hopes there will be a change in direction and decisions about religion will be left to individuals and their families.

"In most faith traditions, prayer is a personal communication between individuals and their God," Lynn concluded. "It's not something to be shouted before kickoff. Students who want to pray should definitely do so. But we're talking about football games, not revival meetings. People should seriously consider whether it is appropriate to shout the Lord's Prayer before a game. It may be legal, but it may not be respectful."