|Outside The Lines - Controversy Grows Over Prayer Before High School Football Games
September 3, 2000
Bob Ley, host - It is a heavenly irony that just as religion is
increasingly a topic in the presidential election campaign, the almighty -
or at least prayer to him - is banished from high school football pre-game
That may be an oversimplification. But this is an emotional
topic, especially for the proponents of public prayer at football games,
and especially across the American South where football and religion are
twin pillars of everyday life.
We've come to this point because two families, one Mormon, the
other Catholic, sued the Santa Fe, Texas, school district objecting to
public pre-game prayers that were school sponsored and led by students.
This summer, in a six-to-three decision, the United States Supreme Court
agreed, forcing many communities to discontinue a local tradition as old
as football itself.
For the past two weeks, some towns have tried an end run around
the ruling using moments of silence, or including the pre-game prayer as
part of the radio broadcast of the game.
But Jeremy Schaap reports from one school district where the
passion for football prayer matches the anger with the high court. And
the prayers do continue.
Jeremy Schaap, ESPN Correspondent - There are a few
things sacred to the people of the twin towns of Batesburg and Leesville,
South Carolina, the barbecue they serve at SheaLey's (ph), the football
they play Friday nights, and their faith.
Schaap - When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down school-sponsored
public prayer at high school football games, the local school board from
Batesburg-Leesville resisted. Early last month, it passed a resolution
stating that it would not, quote, "prohibit a student from voluntarily
delivering an invocation or prayer before school events. Furthermore, the
district will make its public address system available for any such
invocation or prayer."
Ralph Kennedy, Jr., Chairman, Lexington County School District
Three - I think what's important is that students have the ability to have
the freedom of expression. They're guaranteed that under the
constitution, just like you are, just like I am. And we want them to
Schaap - Two weeks later, on the eve of the first football game of
the season, the board amended the resolution to allow students also to
address secular topics. The policy now states that students have a right
to speak, quote, "religiously or otherwise."
Kennedy - We're giving them this open public forum to use the
school system to address if they choose to do so.
Unidentified Female - Heavenly Father, we thank you for this day
and allowing us to go...
Schaap - The school board says it will allow up to three students,
one minute each, to address the crowds before Panther home games, that
they will be selected on a first-come-first-serve basis, and that they can
say whatever they want as long as their comments are not disruptive.
Through two games, three of the four students who've spoken have
Laverne Neal, Executive Director, South Carolina American Civil
Liberties Union - We feel that it's a violation of the 1st Amendment. And
it's a direct violation of the Santa Fe U.S. Supreme Court decision that
was passed in June.
Schaap - Laverne Neal is the executive director of the South
Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. She says that by
providing a forum for prayer, the school is in effect establishing
religion in violation of the 1st Amendment and a large body of Supreme
Neal - It's clear that their decision is to endorse and to advance
religion over other types of beliefs or no beliefs.
Schaap - The intent is not to allow students to pray.
Kennedy - Well, the intent is to allow students to express
themselves either secularly or religiously.
Schaap - So they can express themselves any way they see fit?
Kennedy - That's right.
Schaap - Any kind of free speech.
Kennedy - That's right. So long as it's not disruptive.
Schaap - On Friday, Neal sent the school district a
letter outlining the ACLU's position.
Neal - Hopefully they'll respond positively to the letter and will
rescind their resolution. If not, then the ACLU will take further legal
Kennedy - It's my understanding from talking to the attorneys -
and we have consulted a number of attorneys in this regard who specialize
in constitutional issues - that this is certainly a defensible resolution.
Schaap - Eldon Wedlock is a law professor at the University of
South Carolina. He says that while the school board's position may be
defensible, the Supreme Court decision in Santa Fe makes it unwinnable.
Wedlock - It clearly states that the school district by permitting
a prayer at a football game, having a policy that permits a prayer at a
football game, they're violating the establishment clause. It's no
policy. So I don't think they have a leg to stand on.
Schaap - Wedlock says it makes no difference that the resolution
allows students to speak secularly as well as religiously.
Wedlock - It really doesn't matter. The fact of the matter is
that the reality of the situation is the only reason that this is coming
up is because they want to have prayer at the football games. The reason
they want to have prayer at the football games is because they've always
I can understand why they don't want to change and why they feel
that this is something that is being imposed on them. But it's a question
of whether or not they want to follow the law or not. And it's a question
of the kind of lesson I think that they want to teach the kids.
Schaap - Any lesson in South Carolina history begins and ends with
acts of defiance from Ft. Sumter and the first shots of the Civil War, to
Columbia where until a few months ago the confederate flag flew on top of
the capital dome. And more than almost anywhere else in the U.S., people
here cling to tradition.
To the people of Batesburg-Leesville, the resolution is clearly
less about freedom of speech than prayer and what they perceive as federal
Friday night, Junior Marvin Dozier, Jr. spoke as the Panthers
were about to play Strom Thurmond High School.
Marvin Dozier, Jr. - I feel that it was my right. And it was
my duty to be able to go up there and to be able to pray. And so that's
why I went up there and did what I had to do.
Schaap - At least one student disagrees with the school board's
Unidentified Male - I don't think we should have a prayer before
the games here.
Schaap - Why?
Unidentified Male - I think mainly because the Supreme Court
really knows better what's a student's rights than a small town school
Schaap - For its part, the ACLU like the Supreme
Court, isn't arguing that students should not be allowed to pray, only
that public schools should not institutionalize prayer.
Neal - The fundamental issue here that the school cannot endorse,
sponsor, or mandate religion. They have to remain neutral.
It is not necessary for the school to establish a policy or a
resolution that gives students a right to pray. The 1st Amendment already
does that. The students' right to pray already exists. And the ACLU will
always and has always defended that right.
Schaap - The ACLU says the parents of several students
at Batesburg-Leesville High School have expressed an interest in filing
suit against the School Board. But none has yet to do so.
If no student at the school steps forward, the ACLU is hoping that
someone else with legal standing - a local resident perhaps or a student
at a school that plays the Panthers - will challenge Lexington School
District Three. In the end, finding a plaintiff may be more difficult
than winning a case many legal scholars describe as open and shut.
Ley - And when Outside The Lines continues, I'll speak with a
congressman from South Carolina who also disagrees with the Supreme Court,
and with a minister who is also an attorney who believes such prayer has
no place at high school football games.
Ley - Public pre-game prayer at high school football games, it is
a long tradition and the latest issue in a 40-year debate over religion in
schools. Joining us from Clemson, South Carolina, Congressman Lindsey
Graham whose district includes the high school we visited where prayer
essentially continues; and from Washington, DC, Barry Lynn, executive
director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Mr. Lynn
is an ordained minister.
Congressman, if I can begin with you, what do you think of what
your constituents did in Batesburg-Leesville under the Friday night
Rep. Lindsey Graham (R), South Carolina - Well, they're trying
very hard at the school district level to allow a sense of community to
exist without violating the law.
You know, this whole policy about church and state and students
praying at football games has its origin in the decision about 40 years
ago in the '60s. Until that point in time, I think people in America were
allowed to exercise their 1st Amendment rights in a logical fashion.
I'm not for any school district or state or anyone else making
someone engage in a religious activity they find offensive. However, this
is about a sense of community.
I really believe that the people in Batesburg-Leesville and Santa
Fe, New Mexico, and all over the country ought to be able to have a chance
to pray for the safety of their kids and that everybody get home safe in a
public forum after the school hour is over.
And that doesn't violate anybody's 1st Amendment rights. And it
just reinforces what the country is all about.
Ley - Well, Mr. Lynn, I would assume that you believe that
Batesburg-Leesville violated the court decision. How many school
districts do you believe on Friday and Saturday around the country were in
Barry Lynn, Executive Director, Americans United for Separation of
Church and State - I think it's a minority certainly of the school
districts around the country that have taken this time to really thumb
their nose at the United States Supreme Court. And without getting
technical about how they're doing it, this kind of accommodation of
religion is really more than that.
It's the promotion of specific religion down there in
Batesburg-Leesville. And I think that the lawsuit that was just discussed
in this piece is very likely to happen.
I think the congressman needs to go back and look at some of the
history. It was not in 1960 that all of a sudden there was no praying in
public schools. About half of the states before the 1960 decision had by
virtue of state Supreme Court decisions or by the policies of the
legislatures decided not to have it because they didn't want anyone to
feel like a second class citizen in any school in their state.
And here we have in a few districts, including this one in South
Carolina, people standing up with an attitude of defiance. And there's
nothing courageous about this kind of defiance, Bob.
This is not as one protester had on a sign outside one of these
games Friday night, "Daniel prayed in the lion's den." Well, I can assure
you that the South Carolina football stadium is not the lion's den. The
analogy to Daniel would maybe be if you were a Christian praying in front
of some Chinese thug over in Communist China with a gun. That would be
But to stand up with 1,000 of your co-religionists and pray and
essentially say, "We're the biggest group here and we're going to do what
we want," that's really not an attitude that I as a minister think is the
appropriate way in which we take our communications directly to God.
Ley - Well, Congressman, let me ask you, a lot of legal scholars
have said certainly what happened Friday in Batesburg-Leesville was beyond
the pale, was quite obviously a case that is a slam dunk if they can find
a defendant. I mean, do you believe they were defying the Supreme Court?
That's a serious charge.
Graham - Well, the school district is trying to weave its way into
some constitutional decisions that have evolved since the '60s...
Ley - But they're pretty well out there on this.
Graham - ... that are very hard to interpret. Yeah, there was a
dissenting view on this case. It was six to three.
A Supreme Court decision is a snapshot in time. In the late
1800s, they upheld school segregation because that was the dominant view
of the time.
Here's what I predict, Bill. Here's what I predict is going to
happen, that over time the sense of community that has been lost by not
allowing people after school to offer a non-sectarian prayer to wish their
students and the athletes well and to invoke the higher authority is going
to give way, and that the dissenting view 20 years from now will be the
majority view, and we'll be better off.
This is not a defiant state in terms of "we do it our way or no
way." This is a group of people who believe they're second class citizens
because the Supreme Court over the last 40 years has destroyed the whole
point of the 1st Amendment, the free exercise clause.
The first act of Congress was to pay for 16,000 Bibles. We pray
in Congress. We have a chaplain corps in the military.
We have got to be silly I think in disallowing people at a
football game to have a moment of prayer or silence to respect those
people who are about to play and wish people well to go back home and not
to be hurt. This has gotten to be crazy.
Lynn - Congressman, there was nothing silent about it. There was
nothing non-sectarian about the prayers that we've been hearing prayed
down in South Carolina. They're Christian prayers, and we all know that.
But go down to Santa Fe, Texas, which was the source...
Graham - Right.
Lynn - ... of this original Supreme Court. And an interesting
thing happened. Only 200 people out of the 4,500 people in the stands
participated in this effort to defy the court.
And I think that that does not mean that the other 4,300 people
didn't pray. I'm sure that they were praying with their families over
dinner that night and on the way to the game. And they were sitting
quietly in the stands and expressing the same kind of sentiments that
you've just articulated, make sure that our team and everyone on the field
is healthy and is safe through this game.
But they weren't trying to make a big public show of it. They
were doing I think what Jesus himself, not the ACLU but Jesus, said you
should do. Don't go out and pray on the street corner...
Graham - Jesus...
Lynn - ... so you can be see by men, but go into your own room and
pray in private because your father will hear you. That's really the
nature of prayer.
It is not - and I don't know where we got this idea - that God is somehow
hard of hearing, and unless you scream with hundreds of people or
thousands of people, God is not going to listen to your prayer...
Ley - Let me jump in right there...
Lynn - ... That's just bad theology.
Ley - ... Let me jump in right here just for a second. We will
Mr. Lynn, you have called such prayer "bullying and mob rule."
I'd like to get the congressman's reaction to that as we continue with
Lindsey Graham and Barry Lynn considering pre-game football prayer in a
district in South Carolina where the prayer essentially continues.
Ley - We continue talking football prayer with Congressman Lindsey
Graham and with Barry Lynn.
Mr. Lynn, you have called public prayer, such high school prayers,
"bullying and mob rule." I assume that's an accurate quote.
Lynn - It is.
Ley - All right, Congressman Graham, is this bullying? Is this
mob rule? I doubt you agree.
Graham - Well, one analogy he gave is only 200 people out of 2,000
engaged in the Lord's Prayer. Obviously, it wasn't bullying and mob rule
The right of public expression of faith outside the kitchen room
is part of America. I have a right as an American to express my belief.
And an organized fashion that's not coercive is OK.
The constitution allowed people to come together in a sense of
community in a non-threatening, non-coercive way to express their
religious faith. If you followed this logic that God has to stay in the
kitchen, that's bad for America.
We start every session of Congress with prayer. We have a
chaplain in Congress. We're a diverse group of people.
It's not coercive. We all want to be there. We all engage in the
prayer. And if you don't want to be there, don't show up.
Graham - Nobody is making you do anything...
Lynn - Congressman...
Graham - ... We have chaplains in the military to pray for our men
and women going off to war. Surely to goodness, a prayer offered before a
football game after the school hour is over that is not coercive in nature
is within the bounds of a the free exercise clause.
We've gotten crazy in the last 40 years of trying to drive the
idea of faith out of every institution and every fabric of society. And
we're worse off as a nation. I predict change is coming.
Lynn - I don't know where you get this idea that anybody is trying
to drive faith out of every public square. I didn't say that you should
only pray in the kitchen.
In fact, I think it's a good thing when people who do share a
religious viewpoint are able...
Ley - Mr. Lynn, this is a tradition that has been there for years,
as old as football itself...
Lynn - Absolutely.
Graham - It's a sense of community...
Ley - ... you're a minister...
Lynn - Absolutely.
Ley - ... So you can understand what this means to people having a
central tenet of their Friday or Saturdays in the fall jerked out of their
lives as they see from Washington, DC.
Graham - come out of the kitchen.
Lynn - Well, you asked the question, Bob, and I think it's a good
one. But the point is that we are living now in a country that has 2,000
different religions as well as literally millions of people who are
And I don't want anyone to feel like they couldn't move to
Batesburg, South Carolina, because they're not going to be welcome there
because the majority or almost everyone happens to be a Baptist or happens
to be a Christian. I don't want prayer to become something that divides
Graham - My law partner was Jewish in Seneca, South Carolina.
Everyone is welcome. People of faith, people who don't have faith are
welcome. But to deny me my right or people in Batesburg-Leesville their
right to pray or to express that God would watch over their kids when they
play football is not driving anybody out of the community.
Lynn - Congressman, did you go to the game? Did you go?
Graham - Last night? No, I went to the high school football game
Lynn - Yeah, but the point is that if you had gone to
Batesburg-Leesville, you would not have seen any kind of prayer police.
Nobody would stop someone from praying in the stands.
See, you guys have created a system where you think or you wanted
people to have the impression that someone is going to put masking tape
over the mouth of someone that's praying. And that's not true.
The question is should this school district help to promote this
practice? Should you use the public address system?
Graham - The students are doing it, not the school district.
Lynn - The court said no. Should you delay the game? The court
Ley - Let's talk about the kids because the high school...
Graham - The students are doing it.
Ley - ... well, yes. The high school football coach at
Batesburg-Leesville was more than a little bit uneasy with all the media
in town - ESPN, many major newspapers, and other television networks.
What does this do to the kids? What message does it send? Because it
basically comes down to the youngsters, which the court is trying to
When you have some people saying your school district is defying
the Supreme Court, and others are saying our rights are being taken away,
what message to children do students take away from this at the football
Lynn - It's a terrible message. It's a message that says if you
don't like the Supreme Court rulings - and of course, I think the
congressman and I both disagree with many individual rulings - you can
just go and find some clever way to avoid it. Bring your boom boxes and
turn them up at a specific moment, and there will be a prayer from the
local Christian station. I mean, we haven't had trained parents brought
into stadiums yet to pray.
But this kid of way to cleverly avoid the Supreme Court's rule of
the land is really a dangerous message to young people that says the law
only is the law if you agree with it. If you don't, just go ahead and
violate it. I don't think that's right.
Ley - Congressman.
Graham - I think that's very unfair. What we're trying to do in
Batesburg-Leesville and throughout America, not just in the South, is to
make sure that our kids can express a sense of faith, that they can see
people in the community coming together and offering a prayer for their
well-being, and doing it in a way that is constitutional.
The Supreme Court dissenters in this case will be the majority
soon. That's what this election is really about.
We have an irrational view of faith in the public that is really
dividing America. The Supreme Court is doing us a disservice when they're
trying to drive people back into the kitchen.
What I hope the kids will learn from their school district is that
the school district is trying to comply with the law to make a sense of
community exist. It's not coercing anybody. It's not driving anybody's
faith into the ground. It's trying to allow the people in
Batesburg-Leesville to express a sense of community that's been a
tradition as long as I've been alive or longer.
Ley - Barry Lynn, one quick sentence...
Lynn - Sure.
Ley - ... What is your allowable standard for expression of prayer
in football? And it's a quick sentence.
Lynn - Young people and their parents have a right to do this in
the stands. The government cannot delay the game in order to facilitate
this happening or use the public address system. I predict that the
Supreme Court is going to continue to say just what it said...
Ley - OK.
Lynn - ... as clearly as I predict the Redskins are going to win
Ley - OK, gentlemen, thank you very much. Thanks to Congressman
Graham - Thank you.
Ley - ... and to Barry Lynn.
Lynn - Thank you.
Ley - Next up, we will have a look ahead at a topic as familiar to
sports as any score. We're talking about pain and how athletes deal with
Ley - Tuesday evening, Outside The Lines, pain. Athletes play
with it and inflict it. They'll do nearly anything to get rid of it. But
in the end, most simply live with it.
Unidentified Male - My God, no left hip. My right one is on its
way out. I've got no right leg. A 40-year-old man in an 80-year-old
Ley - How athletes and their teams cope with the constant reality
of pain. That is Tuesday evening directly after "SportsCenter," "No Pain,
No Game," Outside The Lines Tuesday at 7 -00 p.m. Eastern. Join us for a
look at how athletes and their teams deal with the constant reality of
Ley - If you joined us along the way, a reminder about our new
time during the NFL season, 9 -30 Eastern each Sunday. And each Sunday,
Outside The Lines re-airs on ESPN2 at 1 -00 p.m. Eastern, 10 -00 a.m. on the
We welcome your e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Next up, we go to
the ESPN zone in Times Square, Dick Schaap and the "Sports Reporters."
We'll see you.
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