Prayer at Public School Athletic Events

The Supreme Court's mid-November decision to hear the Santa Fe (Texas) Independent School District's appeal in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe has a number of school administrators praying for any kind of guidance on whether student-led prayers are permissible at public school athletic contests.

That the revival of the school-prayer battle will be waged on the gridiron is rather amusing, given the oft-heard lamentation that sport plays too great a role in American culture. But then again, it may well be that there's no more apt location than the athletic field - with all its metaphorical baggage about winners and losers - on which the School Prayer and Separationist teams (and their teams of attorneys) can go head to head.

When the Supreme Court first struck down organized prayer in public schools (in the form of schoolteacher-led recital of the Lord's Prayer) in 1962, the issue was fairly clear-cut - the state, said the court, should not impose a particular religion on a captive audience. But, argued the defendants in the Texas case - the school district that allowed students to lead prayers over the field public-address system - prayer prior to a football game is not imposed by the state if students do it (and not school teachers or administrators), and if it is not done in front of a captive audience, since attendance at games is not mandatory. Additionally, they claimed, students' free-speech and freedom-of-religion rights are in danger of being abridged if they are not allowed to voluntarily lead a prayer.

The plaintiff families, one Mormon and one Roman Catholic, argued that there is no student free-speech right to use the public-address system at a school football game. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, ruling that even "nonsectarian, nonproselytizing" prayer violates the Constitution. An earlier appeals court, the 11th Circuit, ruled against pregame prayers, even if offered by students, in 1989.

Legal scholars will look to the Supreme Court's ruling, which is expected this summer, for its free-speech and church-and-state implications. High school sports administrators should find out specifically whether they can allow students to pray before games, but also how the court views high school athletics in general.

This is so because the 5th Circuit, in its analysis, attempted to distinguish between prayer at a graduation ceremony and prayer at athletic contests. At issue is the intent of Lee v. Weisman, a 1992 case in which a 5-4 Supreme Court majority declared that clergy-led prayer at graduation ceremonies forces religion on some students who, after all, have little choice but to attend. The Santa Fe school district argued that the 1992 precedent doesn't apply, since football games are "non-compulsory" events that aren't as important as graduations. The 5th Circuit, while it agreed that athletic contests were less important, said that it was just this fact that made prayer "inappropriate." The court went on to characterize a graduation ceremony as a "sober type of annual event that can be appropriately solemnized with a prayer," while a football game, it said, is a "frequently recurring, informal" event that does not merit solemnizing treatment.

The above means that the Supreme Court may decide that pregame prayer is inappropriate, but for contradictory reasons: either because athletic contests are in the same class as graduation ceremonies (important events during which prayer is already barred), or because athletic contests are so unimportant they're not worthy of sober treatment. There is also the possibility that the court will determine that football games are so mundane that just about anything goes, including prayer. Don't bet on the latter, though - that's not a rationale that will square easily in Texas, where high school football is often said to be a religion.