Friday Night High School Football Now Prayer-Free

A showdown over public prayer plays out on a high school football field

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Players:  Annie Laurie Gaylor, the president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation--a nearly 16,000-person strong organization representing atheists and agnostics set on "protecting the constitutional principle of the separation of state and church;" Leigh Harris, creator of the "DeSoto County 4 Prayer" initiative, and the DeSoto School District--the largest public school district in the state of Mississippi

The Opening Serve: "On Friday nights, it's customary for the football public address announcer to hand over the microphone to a student or teacher to pray before the home team's band performs the national anthem," notes the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Gaylor and her Wisconsin-based group, the Freedom From Religion (FFRF) and a decision from the Supreme Court have put a stop to those prayers. "Prayer over the loudspeakers at football games is a constitutional no-no," said Gaylor in The Appeal. "The Supreme Court has spoken on this issue...We've given them the law, and the law is incontrovertible. What they're doing is illegal." Gaylor and her group said they received a letter from a DeSoto student. "You can't have prayer at public-school events," Gaylor added. "You can't just go along and ignore the Supreme Court. It's the law of the land and it's a good law, because religion does not belong in our schools."  The school acknowledged Gaylor's complaint and has banned PA-led prayers, reports a CBS affiliate.

The Return Volley: Those in the DeSoto community aren't as accepting as the school district. "I'm so sorry that Christians who stand up for the Lord are the ones who are singled out," said Pamela Selby, a DeSoto school official for 28 years, in a local ABC report. "Praying that children don't get hurt, can you imagine being against that?" Selby adds, "If you're not a believer, you simply tune it out."  "Our rights are slowly getting ripped away by Congress, by our government and it's being done silently," said parent Mike Coker to WMCTV.

Over 2,000 people have liked the "DeSoto County 4 Prayer" Facebook, one of two Facebook pages to spring up since the ban. Leigh Harris, a mother of four, created the page. Harris is urging others to say the Christian "Lord's Prayer" after the Star Spangled Banner, reports the Commercial Appeal."The law's the law," said Harris to the Appeal yesterday. "A paid staff member cannot lead prayer, but it is legal to be student-or parent-led. That's what we're trying to get out to everybody. We can't let these people bully us around." "We believe it's our right to pray in public," said John Harris (no relation), a parent of four children in DeSoto County. "For a group to come from up north and dictate what my children do is offensive to me as a parent." But the argument isn't just about the Harrises' own children, in fact it's about the other students in the district, says Preston Rodgers, a member of Gaylor's organization. "It's a little hard to wonder why they need to have a PA system for God to hear them," said Rodgers to ABC. "Just because most of the people here are Christians, it doesn't mean it's o.k. to force Christianity down students' throats." The FFRF has filed a similar complaint in Bell County, Kentucky.

What They Say They're Fighting About: Praying at football games and its place in public schools. Gaylor is threatening DeSoto County with a lawsuit if it doesn't comply. Harris and her 2,000 backers don't believe the school should back down.

What They're Really Fighting About: Christian majority. What Harris and her team are fighting for isn't a freedom to practice religion, so much as it is a freedom to practice their own religion--Christianity. And Rodgers points out that "because most of the people here are Christians, it doesn't mean it's o.k. to force Christianity down students' throats."

Who's Winning Now: Gaylor, Rodgers, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation by a smidgen. The school district has sustained their complaint and the public prayers are now voluntary. Harris and her supporters, however, have the majority and it seems likely they have enough support to start legal, strong, parent or student-led public prayers. But both sides of these spats aren't without warts. The Freedom From Religion Foundation's seemingly identical complaint in Kentucky makes us wonder how invested the organization was in DeSoto County. And we wonder how Harris and her supporters would react if they were forced to participate in (or perhaps tune out) a religious prayer that wasn't their own?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.