January 2000 Church & State | Viewpoint

I pray.

But I don't pray over the outcome of football games, or for the success of particular plays. Even as a kid at parochial school games, I found it hard to figure out which side God was supposed to be hearing when both teams were down on padded knee beseeching divine assistance.

Now the U.S. Supreme Court has decided to consider the legality of some of these prayers. The question won't be whether individual players or fans can pray, but whether it's okay to offer prayers in public.

Specifically, the justices have decided to consider whether public schools can let students lead group invocations at games. The case grows out of a ruling in a Texas case, in which a lower court held that it was a violation of the Constitution for students to lead prayers before games over a stadium's public address system. The Texas school district argues -- as districts here in Arkansas have learned to do -- that they are not leading the prayers, students are, and so there's no church-state problem involved. Because district officials let students decide whether to pray and what they will say, the districts argue that they are neither causing nor endorsing prayer.

If I were the court I'd find that stance disingenuous. First I'd ask lawyers for the Texas district how many of its other decisions -- especially decisions so serious they could lead into court -- it places in the hands of students? Then I'd ask, if students do something that leads to an unconstitutional result, does the district get to wash its hands, Pilate-like, of the deed? If students of one ethnic group, for example, were to torment other students until the minority students quit coming to school, could the district say, "It was the students who segregated the school, not us"?

Whatever points of law wind up being considered in this case, the test should be whether patrons of the Texas district would accept hearing pre-game prayers addressed to Allah, or Buddha or Goddess, or for that matter, to Zeus, or the Sun, or the Mayans' feathered serpent. Resistance to prayers offered in any of those forms, it seems to me, makes the point. It's hard not to trample on someone else's faith when something as personal as prayer is offered in a public forum.

Yet that trampling occurs constantly. Within the past week I bowed my head while a minister uttered what I'm sure was a sincere invocation that ended "in Jesus' name." It didn't seem to matter to the person leading the prayer that the room held many Jews, a scattering of Buddhists, and, no doubt, an atheist or two. No one mentioned the affront. Those whose faiths had been ungraciously disregarded graciously overlooked the slight. But that is something they should not have to do, especially at public events.

Our own Arkansas governor, Mike Huckabee, understands what many other religious leaders do not; he understands the danger here. When any group in our society gets to call the shots on public prayer, the beliefs of every other group get roughly brushed aside. It's smug for Christians or anyone else to employ the power of the P.A. system if it's one they'd be unwilling to lose or have to share.

Can you imagine the indignation that would erupt if patrons of any school district rose for a pre-game prayer and what came crackling over the speakers was a chant uttered in Korean that was sacred only to a family of immigrants seated on the 20-yard line? The game might be forgotten amid the fury of the fans. Patrons would point out -- and loudly, I presume -- that they paid their taxes to that district. They'd bought that [expletive] P.A. system, and by [some god or another], they didn't intend to hear chanting come over it in some [expletive] language they couldn't understand to some [expletive] deity they didn't believe in!

And they would be right to be upset.

Unfortunately, however, that level of indignation doesn't tend to arise when the prayers heard by most people in the stand match the ones they hear in their churches. A few people might notice a dearth of Hindu prayers before games, but they keep pretty quiet about it. And even in this supposedly Judeo-Christian culture, when was the last time you heard a pre-game prayer that was offered in Hebrew? Yet Hindus pay taxes and so do Jews, and atheists and pagans, too. And so long as anyone's tax dollars contribute to an event, his or her religious beliefs deserve to be respected. That means that all beliefs must be honored -- or none.

We may pray privately during huddles or joke about Hail Mary passes, but the fact is that whenever prayer is broadcast at a public school game, every faith but one gets sidelined.

Mary Leveritt is a writer in Arkansas. Her most recent book is The Boys On The Tracks. This essay appeared first in the Arkansas Times.