North Pike High School football fans wanted their message of faith in God to be loud and clear on Friday, one day after the district announced the suspension of student-led school prayer at football games.
The decision came on the heels of a letter the district received from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which charges that even student-led prayers represent an unconstitutional endorsement of religion, and must, therefore, be ended.
Superintendent Dr. Ben Cox presented the letter to the school board on Thursday and said the district is seeking an opinion from Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood’s office. In the meantime, Cox said prayers would be suspended at sporting events and other school functions.
But individual fans and supporters at North Pike started a grassroots method and skirted the ban.
“Students, patrons and parents will still have the individual right to prayer,” Cox said. “It’s not a violation of federal law to have prayer at an event as long as the school does not initiate it. We encourage our patrons to express that right of religious freedom.”
Before kickoff in the game against Purvis, fans did just that. After an announcer relayed the reason for no student-led prayer, and before a choir sang the national anthem, Dixie Springs resident Paul Ott Carruth led the crowd in saying The Lord’s Prayer.
Copies of the prayer had been distributed to many in the crowd, and members of the visiting team from Purvis also took part in the prayer, which was pre-planned.
Many of North Pike’s fans wore T-shirts that bore witness to their faith in God and in Jesus, along with their right to religious freedom.
North Pike school board member Kevin Matthew said citizens went to work right after the board meeting to make a plan of action.
“I was very proud of our fans,” Matthew said. “Fans were notified. Some people thought it would take days to get the word out, but with Facebook, you tell 10 people, and it’s out.”
Matthew said the board was not going to vote on it, because it would then become policy.
“Dr. Cox did not make the decision to back down, but to protect principals or teachers involved in a student-led prayer. It doesn’t apply just to just to football.”
The Wisconsin group has successfully sued schools in the past and won judgements.
Matthew said the group doesn’t sue, but finds a local family or parent to file the suit.
Most schools continued to pray at events, but the latest tactic by the Wisconsin group “is to sue you individually as superintendent, or principal and person who said the prayer.”
“Next time it could be a million dollars,” Matthew said. “It could financially ruin an administrator, or teacher or school district. If we get sued, we’re going to lose.”
The problem with school prayer at an event such as a game is the “captive audience; students don’t have a choice,” Matthew said.
“I was proud of our fans. We sent a message to this organization, they can sue and stop schools from leading prayer but they can’t keep prayer out of schools,” he said.
Matthew noted that there’s only one more home game, on Oct. 14; the last two are away games.
He hopes people continue to use their religious freedoms.
“A lot of people stopped prayer in the 90s. But after Sept. 11 people brought prayer back; the whole nation was praying. Eventually, we’ve worked our way back to it again,” Matthew said. “I would challenge other school districts who have stopped prayer, to take it up.”
And he urges other districts to go to the Web site www.praybeforeyouplay.org, which takes visitors to a Facebook page for Mississippi Super Talk Radio.
The decision to suspend school prayer sparked discussion throughout the community, not just by North Pike fans, as evidenced by comments amassing on the Enterprise-Journal’s Facebook page and on its Website.
As of mid-afternoon Saturday, there were 122 comments on Facebook, many of them back-and-forth arguments against one person, Eric, who posted that the school is wrong to offer only Christian, student-led prayer and violates the separation of church and state.
“The overly religious views people have around here should not be pushed onto anyone in schools. Period. ... The law says no preference of religion shall be made by a government. So, this should have stopped happening long ago. If you want to pray, do it silently.”
He later posted, “If you feel you must pray, that is your belief. I just don’t want it shoved down my throat. Does that seem understandable?”
Among the dozens of posts defending the pre-game prayer, and prayer in general at school, was this one from Timothy: “... Please go to the game tonight and exercise your right to pray. Please photograph it. Please show how much pride you have. Nothing will please God more than laying down your weapons and sharp tongues, and praying for us all, regardless of how some feel. ... I’m no better than you nor you me. I’m not wise or worldly. ... This mob mentality is wrong. Eric came along and said his opinion and the anger came out. Jesus would have washed Eric's feet.”
On Friday night, there were no rowdy outbursts or interruptions before, during or after the prayer.
But fans in the stands could be heard bemoaning the fact that they would be losing religious freedom.
“All they say is bless the players from both teams, keep them safe, make sure the players are sportsmanlike, and that’s about it,” one fan said.
Others woefully acknowledged that the school would have to capitulate and have a permanent ban on prayers, but they said it must change from the top down.
“In the end, it will have to come from the U.S. Supreme Court,” another said.
Most recently, the Freedom From Religion Foundation successfully ended student-led prayer high school football game and graduation ceremonies in DeSoto County.