At school games, spontaneous prayer is OK, prayer on a PA system is illegal

By Shelby Harrell Staff Writer | Oct 25, 2013

When a Haywood County high school student recently prayed for her football team over the PA system at Tuscola stadium, it raised some legal questions.

After looking into the legalities, Haywood County school administrators discovered it was against the law to pray over a microphone.

School officials shared the information with the student and told her she couldn't do it a second time.

The student had witnessed a similar pre-game prayer at a football game in another county, and thought it would be acceptable to repeat the process on her home turf.

“People assume because someone else is doing it, they can do it,” said Anne Garrett, superintendent of Haywood County Schools. “At the game, (the student) asked to use the microphone to do the prayer and she did, and we later questioned if she was allowed to do that, and we found out it was illegal.”

After school officials sought legal clarification, school board attorney Pat Smathers emailed them a letter stating that prayer at the beginning of a football game was still prohibited, and had been so for several years.

“While I understand it may be occurring at another school system’s stadium, it is certainly being done at the peril of legal proceedings being instituted against those responsible,” Smathers noted in the letter.

In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled during the case “Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doepre-game” that prayer given by a student at high school football games communicates a government religious endorsement, and as such, violates the Establishment Clause.

Associate Superintendent Bill Nolte said he understood that restricting prayer is a controversial topic.

“We know prayer is very important to the community, but we also want to follow the laws that we have,” Nolte said. “We have had a number of people praying on their own and that’s perfectly legal. We’re pleased that they’re exercising their rights. But we’ve asked that people not violate the Establishment Clause.”

When school officials asked the student not to pray again with a microphone, Linda Smith of Clyde was prompted to send a letter to The Mountaineer titled “Shame on you for silencing prayer.” The letter was published in the newspaper on Oct. 14.

In the letter, Smith expressed her distaste that the school’s administration and attorney had put a stop to the prayer.

“Prayer hurts no one,” Smith noted in her letter. “It’s a student’s right and freedom of speech if they choose to pray. Thank God for wonderful kids and God help those who try to tear down their upbringing and beliefs. The law needs to change, and some attitudes too.”

While a planned prayer before a football game is illegal, Garrett said spontaneous prayer is perfectly acceptable, adding that sometimes crowd members stand up and say the Lord’s Prayer before a game.

“As far as we we’re concerned they have every right to pray,” Garrett said.

Garrett added that the school board was allowed to hold an invocation before its monthly meeting because meetings are governed by a different law.