In every season since 1930, the Oneida, Tenn., high school football games have begun with a prayer.
But this year, based on legal advice, the school chose not to begin the games with an invocation via the public address system.
The Oneida High School administrators instituted a moment of silence instead, after receiving complaints from secular groups about school-led prayers at the district’s Friday night football games.
That's when Oneida student cheerleaders cleverly sidestepped the prayer ban.
Instead of a moment of silence on Sept. 12., the cheerleaders linked hands on the field and recited the "Lord’s Prayer" out loud. And the crowd in the stands joined them.
Did the Oneida High School cheerleaders violate the First Amendment of US Constitution?
The Establishment Clause in the First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion...." The Establishment Clause is followed by the freedom of religion or Free Exercise Clause " or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
The intent of the US Founding Fathers was to prevent the government from establishing or promoting a single religion but to allow the US to accommodate any number of religions.
By publicly praying at a public school-sponsored (i.e. government) event, did the cheerleaders run afoul of the Establishment Clause?
In 2000, the US Supreme Court had a somewhat similar case that has since guided public invocations at school events.
In Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, the case involved a student elected as the Santa Fe High School's student council chaplain, who delivered a prayer, described as overtly Christian, over the public address system before each home varsity football game.
The practice of Santa Fe football game prayers was challenged by a Mormon and a Catholic, in a lawsuit invoking the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
The school district amended the practice somewhat, but essentially argued in court that a student-led prayer at a voluntarily attended football game doesn't qualify as a government-led prayer.
But the US Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in 2000 that even this student-led, student-initiated prayer was a violation of the Establishment Clause.
In announcing the Court's decision in the Santa Fe case, Justice John Paul Stevens said:
The invocation is then delivered to a large audience assembled as a part of a regularly scheduled, school sponsored function conducted on school property.
Regardless of the listener support for or objection to the message, an objective Santa Fe High School must perceive the pre-game prayer has stamped with her school the Seal of Approval.
The history of this policy beginning with long sanctioned office of “Student Chaplain” reinforces the perception that the prayer is in actuality encouraged by the school....
The Constitution does not permit a school district to exact religious conformity from a student as the price of joining her classmates at a varsity football game.
It would seem that the Oneida High School long-time practice of a verbal prayer, led by the football game announcer, would also violate the Establishment Clause as outlined in the Supreme Court's 2000 ruling.
But Justice John Paul Stevens may have given the Oneida cheerleaders some wiggle room. In 2000, he went on to say:
Of course by no means does the First Amendment impose a prohibition on all religious activity in our public schools.
Nothing in the Constitution as interpreted by this Court prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during or after the school day.
Legal scholars might argue that a voluntary prayer by a cheerleader – without using the PA system and not endorsed, encouraged, or sponsored by the Oneida school – does not violate the Establishment Clause. If others join the cheerleader, that's their choice. The distinction isn't large, but it might be large enough.
On the other hand, if the Oneida high school cheerleaders are financially supported by tax-payer funds, and the Lord's Prayer - or any prayers - are a part of their training or reviewed by school officials, then the practice would seem to run afoul of the Court's ruling in Santa Fe vs. Doe.