As surely as America is God's chosen country, football is God's chosen game. Tennis players don't fall to one knee and point to the heavens after winning a set. There are no public prayer huddles preceding water-polo matches. Crowds are not led in recitations of the Lord's Prayer at high-school baseball, basketball, volleyball, soccer, hockey, track, golf, gymnastic or swimming contests. These are solely football phenomena.
A U.S. Supreme Court decision last June banned public schools from sponsoring prayer at athletic events. But it's for football that the religious right has put on the pads and drawn up new strategies.
Koby Shed, a lay worship leader in Temple, Texas launched the No Pray No Play (NPNO) movement. He traveled the state all summer, meeting religious leaders, distributing T-shirts and devising a plan for thousands of people to circumvent the court's ruling.
"The Supreme Court has said cease to pray," Shed proclaims to supporters online, "but the Bible says to pray without ceasing.
The public school's hands are tied, but yours are not."
No Pray No Play planned "spontaneous" outbursts of recitations of the Lord's Prayer at high-school football matches. A key moment for the group occurred on the same field that had launched the Supreme Court case. NPNP worked for months preparing for the opening game of the season. A capacity crowd of 4,500 stood for the national anthem. Apparently those who intended to publicly pray got confused about exactly when to begin, and only about 200 remained standing to recite the Lord's Prayer.
"It was obvious that the announcer jumped right in after the anthem," an NPNP supporter told the Associated Press. "If people could have appointed a leader for every section, we could have overcome the speaker."
This attitude provoked Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, to observe, For these folks, prayer isn't an expression of piety, but more of a statement of power: We are the most powerful religious group, and we want everyone 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."
If the issue were simply the right to pray, and those who wanted to pray did so, why were they angry?
"It seems, based on their comments, that they were frustrated by their failure to impose their prayers on everyone," Lynn says. "To me, that speaks volumes."
The Dallas Morning News quoted Rabbi David Stern of Temple Emanu-El.
"For me, it reduces matters of faith to something like doing the wave," Stern said. "Theologically, I think it ends up cheapening the holy."
Even arch-conservative commentator Cal Thomas weighed in with a column on public prayer.
"Apparently some people have such an inferiority complex about their faith that they need to see it trumpeted before the world," Thomas wrote. "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 crowd in order to pray in private."
Undeterred, Shed announced in a newsletter published by James Dobson's Focus on the Family, "I believe this is the beginning of a righteous revolution. This is Almighty God renewing the purpose in America."
Numerous efforts to circumvent the Supreme Court's ruling have occurred. In Hattiesburg, Mississippi a ministerial group organized a crowd of 4,500 to stand before a football game and recite the Lord's Prayer. In Forest City, North Carolina, a radio station broadcast a pastor reading the Lord's Prayer while a crowd at a football game held up boom boxes tuned to the station.
North Carolina is also the home of We Still Pray, which staged a rally of 25,000 in an Asheville stadium to lead prayers at dozens of football games across the state. We Still Pray also utilizes the Lord's Prayer for its organized outbursts. As one of its organizers, Wendell Runion, explains, "If you are going to have organized spontaneity, you have to have something everybody knows that is easy to say."
Sadie Fields, chairman of Georgia Christian Coalition, calls the movement a "rising up against those governmental bodies who are attacking the community of faith," condemning the high court's ruling as "a true infringement on the rights of Christians to display their faith."
Donald Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, approves of the outbursts, arguing, "There is no way the Supreme Court can stop this, because it is simply individuals participating on their own."
But for others, the tactic doesn't go far enough. A Yellville, Arkansas school board decided to broadcast student-led prayer over a stadium's public-address system.
"It's a Christian community," the board president told The Washington Post, "and it would have been very hard for me to walk into church if I'd voted against prayer at games."
High schools in Alabama and South Carolina have allowed student-body presidents to broadcast prayers, using stadium microphones.
The Christian Defense Coalition has called for Christians nationwide to peacefully resist the Supreme Court's ruling, labeling the project Daniel 6:10, a reference to the Biblical story of Daniel refusing the king's instructions when they conflicted with divine laws.
But it is human laws that have enabled and protected religious freedom in this country. Keeping the government out of religion necessitates keeping religion out of government; it's that simple. Freedom for religion also entails freedom from religion. This is part of what distinguishes democracy from theocracy.
But if the Constitution doesn't speak to you, perhaps you should ask yourself what Jesus would say about the matter. "Whenever you pray," Jesus admonishes in Matthew 6:5, "do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others." Jesus tells his followers to pray privately, even secretly, then offers the Lord's Prayer as a model.
Jesus, of course, had God on his side. But when both teams at a football game hold prayer huddles, point to heaven after touchdowns and have supporters in the stands reciting the Lord's Prayer, on which team's side is God? Give up? Which ever team wins, silly!
contact WILLIAM MESSER: [email protected]