When God and football collide

Readers back the Supreme Court on its decision to ban prayer at school events.

By Salon Staff

Published June 28, 2000 7:24PM (EDT)

Cruel and unusual punishment BY FIONA MORGAN (06/22/00)

Stripped to its essence, Fiona Morgan's argument calls the Supreme Court's ruling banning student-led prayer at football games wrong on the grounds that people in Texas really, really, really want to pray at football games.

She claims that the ban is a "slap in the face to the culture of Texas." So what? Ending slavery was a slap in the face to the South. Feminist gains are a slap in the face to the Good Ol' Boys. Implementing pollution controls is a slap in the face to industrialists. Sometimes, you need to slap some faces because it's the only way to get the message through.

-- Walt Roberts

The commentary on the recent Supreme Court decision regarding school prayer omitted one key fact: It was a Catholic and a Mormon who raised complaints about the prayers, as they were Southern Baptist prayers, not merely mainstream Christian or "nondenominational" prayers.

I'm not sure that religion or football are well-served when the two are commingled. After all, it was only the founder of Christianity who recommend private over public prayer.

-- Frank Cuffman

I played high school football in San Angelo, Texas, and whether you liked it or not, you were to say the Lord's Prayer when it was your turn. Now I know I could have refused, but rather than risking constant hazing by my peers, I subjugated myself to something I didn't believe in and said the prayer when it was my turn. I'm glad the Supreme Court did what they did, and wish I could have had the guts to say no when it was my turn to pray to some god I didn't believe in.

-- Andy Claremont

Fiona Morgan does a splendid job in stating the case of religious Texans who revel in prayer before high school football games. However, she does an even better job of stating the court's case in not allowing this prayer to continue.

In her article, Morgan claims, "Was prayer optional at those football games? No, it wasn't. (Not unless you were to put your hands over your ears and brave some prodding from your peers, I guess.)" This is the very reason activities like this need to be banned from public school activities. Those of different religions, or even (gasp!) no religion at all, are forced to be subject to this ancient ritual just for attending a public sporting event.

While Morgan is careful in building the bubble that is the Texas football community, she is reckless in her interpretation of other religions and secular organizations that may have a problem with having to listen to religious garble when all they want to do is attend a football game. The separation of church and state is a protection against alienation of those who have different views than others. To run school prayer over a P.A. system before public school sporting events is a blatant disregard of this protection and is only one of so many examples where not only is the church influencing the state, but running it as well.

-- Brian Ploskina

As a Texan, I take umbrage at the author's assertion that "compulsory" football game attendance and pre-game prayer are good and glorious things.

Nonsense. The primacy of football, which sucks time, energy and money from schools that can't afford decent art or music programs (besides Sousa-playing bands), is a serious problem in Texas. To add religious oppression on top of that is adding insult to injury.

I am a Christian, and proud of that fact. But I remember cringing all through those compulsory prayers, feeling uncomfortable that my friends (which included agnostics, atheists, Jews and Muslims) were feeling angry and marginalized. Like the rabbi in Sherman, maybe they didn't sue; but maybe they should have.

There are many reasons the Texas educational system ranks near the bottom nationwide. I think I'm right in suspecting that narrow-minded attitudes like this author's can't help but contribute.

-- Janell Broyles

Fiona Morgan shows a laudable desire for fairness toward an issue too often marred by ugly, emotional confrontations. However, at a fundamental level, she misunderstands the impact "cultural religion" has on non-participants.

Her amusing anecdote about the local rabbi notwithstanding, Bible-belt Christians (not just Texans) are free to take field trips to other houses of worship when they choose -- as opposed to those who must constantly live with another religion in public life. It's not only football -- it's being compelled to praise Jesus if you want to sing in the choir, listen to religious invocations if you want to attend your own graduation, pray to a specific deity if you want to participate in almost any extracurricular activity. If you don't keep your dissent private, you risk harassment and beating from other students, as well as alienation from the adults in your community and school who sanction such behavior with their silence. Less dramatically, simply failing to pray can cause more subtle consequences: You lose the plum role in the musical, you get skipped for positions of trust and leadership, you always stand a bit outside the circle of full acceptance. Morgan should ask families and individuals who have bucked such systems if they'd term the fallout "some prodding from [their] peers."

To use arguments like "that's the way things were" and "it's cultural" to sanction one group's continued suppression of all others is unconvincing and dishearteningly familiar. I'm reminded of a "60 Minutes" segment some time ago: When a woman from a small Mississippi town was asked what non-believers like the family who'd fled the arson of their home should do, she looked square at the camera and said "they should live somewhere else." While I'm as happy to leave Texas to Texans as Morgan is, I'd like to know that if work or love ever landed me there, I wouldn't need to teach my kids that in some parts of America, it's easier to smile and say nothing when their own beliefs are disrespected.

-- Elissa Rodenbeek

Given that the Supreme Being really gives a shit about football, a game in which people beat the hell out of each other for glory, money, etc. (and which I like, by the way), I think that the author misses the point. I don't like any organized religion. It is offensive to me to have to sit through any kind of religious rite, especially in a totally inappropriate setting. If this is hard to understand, then try to imagine sitting at a soccer match in Iran. You are the only Christian and have to sit through a government-sponsored Muslim prayer session, complete with bowing to Mecca. Think you might be a little uncomfortable? Government-sanctioned, crowd-coerced praying to a god that you don't believe in is not a good thing.

Besides that, nobody is stopping anybody from praying. Pray your head off. Just don't make it a mandatory obligation. What is a football prayer go like anyway -- "Please God, let me rip the quarterbacks' head off in the name of Jesus. Amen."? Freedom of religion also means freedom FROM religion.

-- David Rupkey

Amen, Fiona Morgan! I, too, feel strange siding with the right-wing conservatives who feel like my natural enemies on most issues. As a back-slidden Southern Baptist appalled at my church's turn toward fundamentalism, I find more scary the Supreme Court's decision that student-led prayer before sports events is illegal.

In my town (Fordyce, Ark., -- home of the Fordyce Redbugs, where Paul "Bear" Bryant began his football career), we pray before every game for the safety of the players. No one has protested the prayer as of yet, but it startles me to think that anyone would. I respect other religions and cultures and realize that not everyone prays, but my feeling is that if they do not want to pray, they do not have to participate. Don't bow your head if it bothers you that much. Maybe there could be another "pre-game ceremony" to represent that individual's beliefs, but, here in Fordyce, the majority are Christian and don't give a second thought to the prayer.

-- Brenda Turpen

I thought your treatment of this issue is right on. I, too, have misgivings about compulsory forms of worship. I am a practicing Catholic who spent much time in the Bible Belt South in my college years and was quite sensitized to over-zealous Bible thumpers. I know the pain that many Jews and others in my native New York experienced when prayer was a compulsory part of their school routine.

Nevertheless, it seems to me the justices can be quite insensitive to the rights of those who wish to collectively pray at public functions. What's not clear to me is why this should be different than saluting the flag or reciting a motto. Who's to say that's not often offensive? Some folks can be way too sensitive.

To me, the proper course of action is not to rid the function of prayer but to mitigate the compulsory aspects of it. You hit the nail on the head when you said that religion was not a solely private act. Clearly there ought to be a place for public expression of religious sentiments in ways that don't infringe on others' rights. I'm not sure what that "third way" is, but neither do the majority of justices.

Thanks for adding some commonsense, reasoned discourse to an all-too-often polarizing debate.

-- Peter I. Doyle

Salon Staff

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