Several students and attendees wore "Prayer Matters" t-shirts and held a moment of silence at an Ohio high school basketball match in response to a complaint by the atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation, which halted a decades long tradition of praying before athletic events.
More than 100 people in attendance at the Friday evening West Branch High School varsity basketball game in Beloit, Ohio sported "Prayer Matters" shirts, according to The Vindicator, which added that the attendees were asked to have a moment of silence for reflection, prayer or meditation following the National Anthem.
The district halted prayer before sports events after the Wisconsin-based group FFRF sent a complaint letter on Jan. 18, claiming the practice is unconstitutional.
"It is illegal for a public school to sponsor religious messages at school athletic events," FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert wrote to West Branch Local School District Superintendent Timothy Saxton. "The Supreme Court has continually struck down school-sponsored prayer in public schools. Moreover, the Supreme Court has specifically struck down invocations given over the loudspeaker at public school athletic events."
The school had a tradition of a local pastor saying a prayer before football and basketball games for more than three decades, according to WKBN.com.
Pastor Mark Reich, of Beloit Evangelical Friends Church, was quoted as saying that prayer was always for "protection, good, their best efforts and for everyone to go home saying, 'I did my best.'"
The community wants the tradition to continue, according to reports.
Paige Derry, 14, was quoted as saying, "I believe we are allowed to express ourselves and it's our freedom guaranteed by the Constitution. I want the praying to continue."
"It's disheartening when this type of thing comes in from outside," Reich said. "Because it is a well-loved tradition. The faith foundation in this community, it runs deep."
"We are looking for an option that gives us an ability to do that. It's that compromise that we're working on," Saxton was quoted as saying.
Earlier this year, Georgia Sen. Michael Williams introduced legislation, titled the "Coach Small Religious Protection Act," that would effectively allow high school football coaches and other public school officials in the state who want to participate in a student-led and initiated prayer to do so.
The bill would take effect in the 2018-2019 school year and would amend state law relating to elementary and secondary education to provide "freedom of religious expression by faculty and employees of public schools while fulfilling the duties of their jobs."