On any given fall Friday night, you’d be hard-pressed to find a football field in the South without a bowed head or a bent knee.
But even before the season begins in a few weeks, the issue of prayer on public high school fields was put in the spotlight last week when a humanist group accused Chestatee High School of “unconstitutional infusion of religion into the high school football program.”
In its letter to the school, the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, the legal arm of the American Humanist Association, wrote that coaches are leading and participating in prayers and that Bible verses are printed on workout sheets and cheerleading banners. All this amounts to government-endorsed religion, the group argued.
The group made noise about threatening legal action but stopped short of doing so. The guess here is that its leaders have no such intention, but merely wanted to stir up some attention. On that front, mission accomplished.
Yet the humanist center’s effort to parachute in and dictate policy has, so far, backfired. The community outpouring of support for the coaches and players has mostly drowned out dissenters. Other schools have held prayer gatherings in support, and social media pages and links have been created to celebrate the cause.
We agree no school should force prayer or religious expression on anyone. By all accounts, no one at Chestatee has crossed that line. Yet we also agree individual students should be free to express their beliefs, whether they pray to Jesus, Allah, an ancestral god or none at all.
It should be noted this humanist group isn’t asking students not to share their beliefs. The issue comes from adults actively participating in religious activities.
Many principals, teachers and other school staff count themselves as Christians. Some likely ascribe to other beliefs; others surely have no religious affiliation. Should these adults check their beliefs at the school door?
There is a difference between talking about faith after class with a student who has initiated that discussion and preaching the Gospel in front of 20-plus young people who aren’t allowed to grab their bags and step out of the room.
There also is a difference between a teacher gathering with students in prayer before or after the bell rings and leading a prayer over the PA system at the start of the day.
Guidelines on what teachers can discuss on school grounds lean toward limiting their speech altogether to ensure a student never feels the school endorses certain beliefs. But teachers should not lose their own religious identities simply because they speak to impressionable young minds. They do, however, need to continue practicing tolerance of all students and their individual faiths.
Everyone’s beliefs should be respected. Discussion about religion, however, should not be discouraged. The only way for a Christian to understand a Muslim’s beliefs, and vice versa, is to hear them firsthand and learn about them.
There’s a word for such an enlightening exchange of information: It’s called education.
History reminds us while America was founded largely on Christian principles, what drove many across the ocean was the opportunity to worship without fear of persecution. That right extends to us all, including students, teachers, coaches, principals and all school staff members. It isn’t an establishment of religion simply because they happen to hold government-paid jobs.
This has come up not only in schools but in courtrooms and government chambers over presentation of the Ten Commandments or invocation prayers. The argument is that doing so violates the First Amendment’s promise to avoid establishing a religion — though it’s worth noting the Constitution says nothing about being spared from listening to other people’s free speech or their prayers. It leaves us to deal with that on our own.
These institutions, like schools, aren’t just monolithic entities. They are staffed by human beings who, individually, have beliefs and a right to express them. As long as this is voluntary and not mandated, the constitutional vow is not broken.
For most of two centuries, that seemed to be understood. The Founding Fathers likely assumed most people would be tolerant of others’ beliefs or just tune them out. In all their forward-thinking wisdom on so many fronts, they likely never imagined a society so thin-skinned that hearing someone else’s prayers would cause such angst.
So let’s be clear: No student, football player, coach or individual should be required to pray, or penalized for not doing so. Likewise, no one can or should keep someone from praying, if they so choose, on a school field, a classroom or anywhere.
And for a little perspective, keep this in mind: Religious differences have spawned conflicts galore over the ages of mankind, from ancient times through the dawn of Christianity, from the Crusades through to the Inquisition and beyond.
Even in today’s world, the Middle East and Africa remain aflame as jihadists wage war against “infidels” of all stripes in order to establish their faith and exorcise all others. Those who practice minority religions often are persecuted for their beliefs worldwide.
Yet here in America, the battle lines are drawn over a football team’s prayers or Scripture verses spray-painted on a spirit banner. That doesn’t quite reach the level of people being hauled out of their homes and raped, beaten and killed over if, or how, they worship.
So while we clearly have a ways to go in terms of respecting all beliefs in our country, we still do it better than most.