When prayer is out of bounds on field of play

In a state where high school football is practically a religion, pre-game prayers are as old as a Hail Mary pass and as common as a touchdown boogie. Players say that prayer helps bring clarity to the mind, strength to the body, and a sense of fair play to the game.

But school-sponsored prayer has always been on shaky legal ground in US courts. Unlike pro sports, where prayer is making a visible comeback, most public high schools are restricted from promoting any one religion. And if a landmark court decision last week is upheld, even student-led prayer at Texas sports events may soon be a thing of the past.

For born-again Christians like Deion Sanders, a star defensive back for the Dallas Cowboys, and Darryl Strawberry, a New York Yankee outfielder, the court's ruling is a cruel irony. Just as they and other newly religious professional athletes became willing to let their lives serve as models for younger fans, the schools and courts are discouraging kids from emulating one of the most positive forces in their lives: prayer.

"I find it tragic that our legal system is liberal enough to encourage a rude gesture as freedom of speech, but it discourages athletes from bowing their heads, clasping hands, and giving thanks to God," says Mr. Sanders, who like other evangelical Christians on the team, prays before, during, and after every game. "As a practicing Christian, if I had an opportunity, I would encourage these young athletes to turn to God."

It's an issue that resonates in every small-town stadium in America, but has special significance in the South. At issue is whether a school can permit the religious exercise of one student without infringing on the beliefs of another. At stake is a religious tradition that many prominent sports figures say is an integral part of the sport, and an important positive influence for a society under moral siege.

"Sport ... crosses more demographic and social groups than any other activity," says Joel Kirsch, a sports psychologist and founder of the American Sports Institute in Mill Valley, Calif. As such, it's natural that all the major forces in society - drugs and violence, for instance, or faith and discipline - appear on the field.

Even so, he says, the very activity of playing sports tends to bring structure and discipline into an athlete's life, and it's natural that athletes would consider prayer to be an integral part of the game. "Sport is a spiritual discipline," Dr. Kirsch says.

In legal terms, the decision by the Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans stands to affect every school district in Texas, as well as those in Louisiana and Mississippi. In the case called Jane Doe v. the Santa Fe Independent School District, the court ruled 2 to 1 that public schools must forbid student-led prayers over the public-address system during sports events.

Supporters of the decision note that the Santa Fe schools had a history of proselytizing. Teachers used to distribute free New Testaments in class - even to non-Christians. At football games, student-led prayers over the public-address system inevitably ended with the words, "In Jesus' name, we pray." One seventh-grade teacher told a student in class that the student's religion, Mormonism, was a "cult." (He was later reprimanded, but not until after the parents filed suit.)

Curiously, the ruling does not, in fact, restrict prayer at sports events. Athletes can still pray alone or in groups, and fans can still make fourth-quarter appeals for divine intervention. Even so, the decision has kicked up a controversy all over the state, drawing widely different reactions. Civil libertarians, for instance, lauded the court for protecting the rights of religious minorities, who may feel excluded.

"When the majority in a school district decide whose beliefs are appropriate, that's religious majoritarianism," says Steve Green, legal director for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State in Washington, and a West Texas native. "That's what the Bill of Rights was created for, to protect the minority's views."

Religious conservatives, on the other hand, complain that the ruling infringes on religious freedom. Some fret that the court's decision will eventually allow state control over the content of a student's prayers. Others say the legal system is taking on the wrong enemy.

"With all of the challenges facing students, coaches, and school administrators - drugs, violence, scandal - the last thing the court should be attacking is the opportunity for young people to practice their faith," says David Smale, spokesman for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a group based in Kansas City, Mo.

But for professional athletes like Mr. Strawberry, the decision sends a troubling signal in troubled times. He credits prayer for helping him kick drugs and alcohol and to bring more focus to his game. Indeed, he wishes he had found prayer earlier in his life, and his career.

Prayer at sports events "would have had a great effect on my life if they had allowed that in my time growing up," says Strawberry.

Strawberry understands that not all children grow up Christian, but he says there's a way to pray without offending or excluding. "It's about faith," he says. "It calms the temper, it changes lives.... The only way to change you is God."

LIKE Strawberry, Sanders admits having spent much of his professional career engaged in what the Bible calls "riotous living." But given the gravity of today's social problems, such as drug abuse and crime, Sanders says young people can bring some structure into their lives by turning to God, both on and off the field.

"When it's fourth down, I pray," says Sanders. "I'm seeking God's help, and when He can trust me privately, He will reward me publicly." Just so, he says that Texas students can still pray - and abide by the law. "I would say to them, if you can't pray outwardly, pray in your mind, and God will reward you openly."

Is it possible to come up with a nonsectarian prayer that inspires many but offends none? Dr. Kirsch at the American Sports Institute thinks so.

"Many athletes experience an altered state of consciousness," says Kirsch. "Those athletes who are raised in the Christian tradition will naturally ascribe a Christian interpretation to their physical experience. In Iran, they might invoke the Koran. But if you separate out the dogma, there are some common values that can be shared."

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