The Counsellor's Corner


One of the more controversial topics facing society today and one that comes up at least twice a year involves prayer in the schools.  The latest case to come before the United States Supreme Court is from Texas and it was argued before the Supreme Court in late March.  In this case, the school policy is to permit students to elect one of their own to deliver a prayer or invocation before football games, graduation, and other significant events.  This concept has actually become somewhat widespread in the South and presumptive Republican Presidential nominee, Governor George W. Bush, has filed what is called a “Friend of the Court” brief in this case endorsing the student-led prayer. 

When listening to oral arguments, the Justices did not seem to be particularly sympathetic to the prayer concept.  The questioning seemed to indicate that the Justices feel this policy crosses over the important line separating Church and State.  Our Constitution does not permit schools to force students to participate in religious activities and public school employees are not permitted to promote religion.  On the other hand, students are permitted to pray on their own, and they are of course permitted to engage in on-campus after-school activities that have a religious flavor. It is one thing to do something with others who want to do it on a voluntary basis and it is something quite different to have a captive audience.  The State of Texas has been split between those who suggest a moment of silence along with the pledge of allegiance before football games, and those who want prayer. 


Some of the Justices asked the attorney for the Texas School Board particularly probing questions.  Justice Souter wanted to know if the student chosen to lead the prayer on a given day could get up and say, “All religion is bunk?”  Justice Ginsburg wanted to know if the student could lead a prayer as follows: “Break their necks, make them wrecks.” 

Governor Bush, in the brief filed on his behalf, indicated that he believed all sectarian prayers including Christian prayers should be permitted.

On the other hand, the Baptist Joint Committee came out against prayer, indicating its belief that prayer ought to be a sacred communication with God and that government involvement in this contact demeans it.

Football games are not supposed to be divisive.  I view the idea of the high school football game as to have the players play and the students rally around their team and let it be a good time for all.  Prayer has absolutely no place here, especially sectarian prayer.  I have no problem with a generic “may all players from both teams survive this game without death or injury,” but much more than that I would find inappropriate.  A Muslim prayer leaves out Christians, etc.  A Christian prayer leaves out Atheists, etc., while a Jewish prayer leaves out Muslims, etc.   I don’t want anyone to feel left out at a football game.  I don’t want anyone to attend a football game and have to be concerned with their belief system.  Football games are not about offending people unless they are offended by getting beaten 49-0.  They ought to be about fun and exercise, not a time to proselytize nor attempt to put one religion above another.  If Jesus Christ were to be mentioned in the prayer it would omit all of those who do not believe in him.  If Mohammed were mentioned by a Muslim giving the invocation, others might feel uncomfortable.  Atheists and Agnostics have an equal right to enjoy the football game and not be subject to having to listen to a prayer they might find offensive.  People pray at home and they pray in their churches, their temples, their mosques.  Religion is an extremely important part of the lives of many, however there are also many who choose not to be involved in it.  Sporting events are not the appropriate venue for the pushing of one’s religious views.  Let’s let kids be kids, let them enjoy their games, and let’s take prayer out of the equation.    

Dr. Charles J. Unger is a criminal defense attorney in the Glendale law firm of Flanagan, Booth & Unger, and a therapist at the Foothill Centre for Personal and Family Growth.  Mr. Unger writes a bimonthly column on legal and psychological issues.