In the article below, Gulf County Superintendent Tim Wilder said, “We have always supported it. Our board supports it. If we find out we’re doing something illegal, we’ll consult our attorney.” No one has ever complained about the prayers..." Just because no one has complained does not mean it is Ok. In fact the article notes that in 2000 the Supreme Court ruled that a school in Texas violated the establishment clause by allowing students to pray before football games over the public address system.
Read the full article and see the accompanying video here.
When is it OK to pray in school?
Prayer in public schools is a contentious subject in Northwest FloridaPort St. Joe’s last home football game of 2009 began like any other, with player introductions and a prayer.
The public address announcer introduced each senior individually, then handed the microphone to a local minister.
The din of the crowd dropped to murmurs. Most of the people in the stands bowed their heads. A few players dropped to one knee.
“Father, we do thank you for the blessings of this day,” said Troy White of New Life Christian Center, a non-denominational Port St. Joe church. White thanked God for the athletes, asked Him to guide the seniors as they made career and college choices, to keep the players safe, and to bless everyone at the game.
“This we ask you in Jesus’ name. Amen,” White concluded.
Christian prayer prior to football games is a tradition in the South. But prayers like the one said at Port St. Joe over the school-owned public address system also might violate the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Gulf County School District officials believe the pre-game prayers are both positive and legal.
But similar practices elsewhere have landed school districts in divisive lawsuits that can cost districts hundreds of thousands of tax dollars.
“They’re setting themselves up for a legal fight, and that’s just unfortunate,” said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, a nonpartisan organization with offices in Washington D.C. and Nashville, Tenn. “No one wins with these lawsuits.”
Prayer in public schools is a contentious subject in Northwest Florida.
A U.S. District Judge placed the Santa Rosa County School District under a court order in January that prevents officials from sanctioning or leading religious activities.
In response, Santa Rosa County students began leading voluntary prayers this fall before high school games.
Meanwhile, 100 or so miles to the east, Florida Freedom reporters observed pre-game prayers this fall at schools in Gulf, Washington and Jackson counties. They all followed a similar pattern.
At Graceville High School in Jackson County, a student led a prayer over the public address system before the Oct. 2 game against Blountstown. The student asked the “Heavenly Father” to keep the players and the crowd safe.
That same night a student also led a prayer over the public address system in Gulf County before Wewahitchka High School played Bozeman, asking for the safety of the players and crowd, but making no mention of a deity.
A week later, the announcer at Wewahitchka’s game against Liberty County offered a prayer to Jesus Christ over the public address system.
Washington County students frequently lead Christian prayers over the public address system at Chipley and Vernon games. Typically, the crowd is asked to stand and bow their heads by the announcer before a student prays.
School officials in all three counties said they intend to continue the practice.
“We support it (the prayer),” said Gulf County Superintendent Tim Wilder. “We have always supported it. Our board supports it. If we find out we’re doing something illegal, we’ll consult our attorney.”
No one has ever complained about the prayers, the officials said.
“If anything, I’ll hear about it if they don’t pray,” said Washington County Superintendent Sandra Cook.
The U.S. Supreme Court has made a number of rulings about what is and is not legal when it comes to prayer in schools.
Still, questions abound.
“There are lots of people, who if they feel strongly about something, really don’t care what the Supreme Court says,” said Douglas Laycock, a University of Michigan Law School professor who specializes in the First Amendment. “If they want to find a way to keep doing it, they will. That’s been the history of this litigation ever since the Supreme Court started deciding these cases in 1962.”
The legal debate hit Northwest Florida in August 2008 when the American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of some students, sued Santa Rosa County schools for promoting Christianity. After a five-month legal battle, the district admitted liability and agreed to abide by a court order that prevented school officials from promoting any religion.
This fall, Santa Rosa County high school students began leading football crowds in the Lord’s Prayer – a practice that the students involved say is voluntary, doesn’t involve use of the public address system, and is not sanctioned by school officials.
The trouble arises, according to some legal scholars, when students are allowed to use a school’s public address system to lead the prayers, as they are in Chipley, Graceville, Port St. Joe, Vernon and Wewahitchka. The public address system is school property, and use of it to pray implies school endorsement, said Haynes, who has written extensively about religion in schools.
The legal basis for this argument was established in 2000 when the Supreme Court ruled that a school in Santa Fe, Texas, violated the establishment clause by allowing students to pray before football games over the public address system.
“Religious liberty is about keeping the government out of our religious choices and commitments,” said Laycock, who wrote a brief in the Santa Fe case. “We leave religion to individual families and churches, and you just can’t deliver a prayer for a large crowd in a way that is consistent with the religious liberty of everybody there.”
Under current interpretation of the law, Haynes said the only way prayers over the school public address system can be constitutional is if they are part of a free-speech forum. To be considered a free-speech forum, several considerations need to be met.
“Does the school give the microphone over to any and all students on all occasions or a student, who, wink, wink, was going to give a prayer?” Haynes asked.
Another important factor is the schools’ past actions.
“History counts,” said Haynes. “What is the pattern here in this community?”
If a lawsuit is filed, a district is likely in for a long and expensive legal battle. Santa Rosa Schools spent more than $440,000, and their case didn’t even go to trial.
Neither Haynes nor Laycock definitively said that Northwest Florida schools are in violation of the law by allowing prayers over the public address systems. But both questioned the legality of the practice.
“I don’t think the school is wise to be cute about this, to try to find some way to get around the law,” Haynes said. “It’s possible that they could get away with it, but I think they know what they’re doing.”
Not so crystal clear
Most school administrators said as long as pregame prayers are student-led, and the content is not previewed or approved by school staff, then they are respecting both the establishment clause and the free speech requirements of the First Amendment.
Graceville Principal Chris Franklin said he worries that stopping a student from praying over the public address system would violate that student’s right to free speech.
“We don’t want to do anything wrong, but we have to respect students’ rights,” he said.
Some legal experts support Franklin’s understanding of the law.
“It’s not an automatic violation of the so-called separation of church and state because religious remarks come over the PA system,” said David Cortman, senior legal counsel with Alliance Defense Fund. “The more particular facts should be applied, not an erroneous broad brush, which is why the Santa Fe case doesn’t apply as particularly to these situations as Adler v. Duval County.”
The 2001 ruling Cortman cited was one of two made by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta after the Santa Fe case that allowed prayer over public address systems at school events as long as the prayers were student-led with no school approval.
“There’s a difference between government-sponsored religion and going so far as to limit private religious speech. I think the ACLU continues its seek-and-destroy mission of all religious speech,” Cortman said.