Football prayer movement worries Jews


WASHINGTON, Aug. 31 (JTA) — There is a growing Christian movement involving prayer, football and schools — and it has U.S. Jewish groups worried as the new academic year begins.

Some communities, mainly in the Southeast and Texas, are organizing “spontaneous” prayer before high school football games, only a few months after the Supreme Court ruled that student-led prayer at school sporting events was unconstitutional.

National and local Jewish agencies are watching the grass-roots effort closely and are worried.

The court had ruled in June that students may pray, just as long as the school does not sponsor or facilitate the prayer. Providing a public address system or holding prayer rallies, for example, would be illegal.

But if school officials are not involved, then participants are legally free to say the Lord’s Prayer, as has been the practice at games in a number of states so far.

School officials can’t even create a window for prayer to take place, said Marc Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress’ legal department, but if fans alone are involved then the issue “may be beyond the reach of the law.”

Jeffrey Sinensky, director of domestic policy and legal counsel for the American Jewish Committee, said he is not sure whether the spontaneous prayers are legal, but they are a clear attempt to circumvent the message of the court.

The AJCommittee has heard about the prayer movement from some of its chapters, but said it will wait and see how the issue plays out before it would consider challenging the practice.

Sinensky said religious leaders should act together to say this practice is not appropriate.

Local Jewish leaders are upset because of the animosity the issue is creating for their communities.

“It’s not a legal issue, but a sensitivity issue,” said Jay Kaiman of the Anti-Defamation League in Atlanta.

When hundreds of fans stand up and pray at a game, even if it’s not school-sponsored, people will wonder how it happened, said Marlene Goren, the director of Dallas’ Jewish Community Relations Council.

“It’s a question of inclusion,” she said.

Kaiman, director of the ADL’s Southeast region, which includes South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama, said local churches are advancing the reintroduction of prayer at football games.

Steve Benen of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a group that monitors religious liberties, says groups of local ministers have started formal projects in certain areas and are telling people through the churches to support the prayer movement.

But so long as the school is not involved, the practice can’t be stopped, Benen said.

The June ruling was the latest major decision that showed the high court wants a strong separation between church and state with regard to school prayer. In 1962, a Supreme Court landmark decision outlawed organized, officially sponsored prayers in public schools; and in 1992, the justices barred clergy-led prayers at public school graduation ceremonies.

But the prayer movement seems to be catching on. At a recent rally in Asheville, N.C., thousands proclaimed they would pray at school events as often and as publicly as the Constitution permits.

A group called No Pray, No Play is working to ensure that the Lord’s Prayer is said at games. The group is offering to help people organize prayer at events around the country.

The group says the devil wants to destroy religious freedom and while he might have stopped students from leading prayer, he forgot about “prayer in the stands by the fans.”

It is clear that the organization is being very careful of their legal and constitutional boundaries.

In a “Statement to Non-Christians” on the group’s Web site, the group says it are not trying to impose its faith.

“We agree with the Supreme Court’s decision to prevent public schools from encouraging or allowing a student to pray over the school’s P.A. system,” the site says.

“It is definitely not their job to promote one religion over another. It is our job to promote Jesus Christ according to Scripture. You are free to promote your belief (or lack of) as much as you want. We don’t pray to force our religion on people, we pray to honor God.”

Jewish organizations say the prayer movement is spreading a divisive message.

“The danger is, it begins to divide communities along religious lines,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Pelavin said that schools should be proactive and make it clear that they do not support the action.

Recommended from JTA