The start of the high school football season in much of the southern United States saw the Freedom From Religion Foundation score two separate victories.
On Monday, the DeSoto County School District in Hernando, Miss., said that it would enforce a policy prohibiting use of the public address system to broadcast prayers before football games. That followed a similar pronouncement by the Bell County School District in Pineville, Ky.
The decisions by the two school districts to abandon local high school traditions that date back as far as a half-century were prompted by legal threats from the foundation, which describes itself as the nation’s largest association of “freethinkers,” including atheists, agnostics and skeptics.
“The law is very clear,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, the foundation’s president. “There should be no prayer, no government-fostered, sponsored, hosted prayer going in public schools.” She specifically cited “prayers to Jesus over the loudspeaker” as “a constitutional no-no.”
Bell County Schools Superintendent George Thompson said his southeastern Kentucky school district had little choice but to yield to the foundation’s demands. “It certainly wasn’t our choice to discontinue the prayer,” he said. But “[i]f we tried to fight it, we couldn’t win.”
Gaylor agreed. “This is the kind of thing,” she said, “that if we sued over it we would win.” The school districts almost certainly would be compelled to pay the Madison, Wisc.-based foundation’s court costs, she added, which “would cost taxpayers money that should not be wasted.”
The foundation’s crusade against prayer before high school football games finds legal support from an 11-year-old Supreme Court decision in a Texas case. By a 6-3 majority, the justices declared that under no circumstance may public schools allow prayer on any occasion, including the start of football games.
That literally game-changing decision, and others that followed, have led to extreme applications that strike many as unreasonable. Last year, a Tacoma, Wash., high school football player was flagged for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty during a state playoff game after he briefly prayed in the end zone following a touchdown.
Supporters of prayer in schools are not as certain as Gaylor and her foundation that the issue is completely settled. They believe that a change in the makeup of the Supreme Court could result in the justices revisiting the 2000 decision that effectively outlawed any kind of school prayer.
Most Americans, meanwhile, support prayer. Nearly two-thirds of Americans said they favor prayer in schools, according to a Rasmussen poll earlier this year. Only 24 percent of surveyed adults said they opposed it.