Controversy Over Prayers at Football Games

October 22, 2000

Source: The Atlanta Journal and Constitution

On October 22, 2000, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution reported that, "the U.S. Supreme Court continues to place restrictions on prayer and religious activity involving public schools. But several DeKalb County high schools are testing the limits of the law by having Baptist ministers serve as chaplains to school football teams. The ministers, including televangelist Bishop Eddie Long and some of his associates at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, provide pregame prayers and devotionals. 'It has a religious tone, but it is not preaching,' Redan High coach Steve Davenport said. During the season, a couple of players have dedicated their lives to Christ, Davenport said. 'I don't think that that is a negative,' he said. However, the coaches' feelings might not be the most important ones. This summer, the Supreme Court ruled a Texas school district's policy of permitting student-led prayers over stadium P.A. systems before football games violated the constitutionally required separation of government and religion. Writing for the court, Justice John Paul Stevens said: 'The religious liberty protected by the Constitution is abridged when the State affirmatively sponsors the particular religious practice of prayer.'...'For a public school athletic department to have a person that is clearly affiliated with a certain denomination is a problem,' said Gary Roberts, a law professor at Tulane University. 'If all the chaplain does is make himself available to the young men for individual counseling, then that is OK. If the coach has a mandatory meeting and makes the players attend, then that is a problem.' DeKalb coaches insist that the gatherings are voluntary, although attendance usually is 100 percent. Other public schools in the metro area allow speakers to give motivational pregame talks, but they are not always performed by ministers of one particular denomination, and they often are done by lay people."