Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Can Public High School Coach Pray With His Team?

From the Tennessean via Deadspin. (It says something about the state of the newspaper industry when I learn about the contents of my hometown paper from a national sports blog.)

To Coach Louis Thompson, praying with his Lincoln County High School football team is as important as leading them to winning seasons — maybe more important.

"Every day when we finish practice, we take a knee, bow our heads and say the Lord's Prayer — every day. We don't miss a day," Thompson said.

"Along with the Lord's Prayer at practice, we have a silent prayer before each game where I tell them to pray for themselves and their teammates.''

But a case making its way to the U.S. Supreme Court could prevent Thompson and other coaches of public schools from praying with their teams, even if the players initiate the prayer on their own.

Depending on what they're praying for or about, I give a thumbs-up to students (regardless of faith tradition) who take the initiative to pray—whether individually or in a group—before games, meets, or other school-related events. (Actually, Romans 8:26-27 tells me that I shouldn't worry to much about what students pray for or about.) In theory, I'm also OK with coaches and sponsors participating in these prayers, so long as they don't lead the prayers or pressure members of the team or club to participate. That said, I can imagine situations in which the coach's mere participation in a prayer could appear as an endorsement of a particular faith tradition. It really depends on the coach's attitude, body language, and so forth.

I don't know enough about this particular coach, who does his praying right here in Middle Tennessee, to approve or contest his participation in his team's prayers. But the fact that he admits to telling his players at each practice to pray for themselves and their teammates makes me suspect that Coach Thompson is pushing the limits of the establishment clause. (Deadspin is skeptical of Thompson's passive-participant defense: "But Borden is saying that he doesn't want to lead the prayer, he just wants to silently pray nearby without interceding. Sure he does. And he wants his quarterback to call the offensive plays, and his linemen to run laps on the honor system.")

I will add that I'm not sure that team prayers have that much to do with religion in the first place. During my four years on the Perry Meridian High School swim team, we took a knee and said the Lord's Prayer before each and every meet. Everyone participated willingly, even those who were nonreligious or skeptical of Christianity. The ritual was more about team unity than connecting with God through Christ. The Lord's Prayer was familiar—most of us knew it by heart; those who didn't could learn it quickly. No theological reflection happened before swim meets, just 20 kids in Speedos and parkas reciting in rhythm and in unison 67 words from memory. I'm not sure that these pre-meet prayers brought any of us closer to God, but they certainly brought us closer together as a team.

As I recall, our coach encouraged us to pray, but she did not participate.

Oh yeah, I deal with this issue in my forthcoming book, Kneeling in the End Zone. Look for it this fall from the Pilgrim Press.


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