Can we legally have prayer before sporting events?
Public school officials and employees may not offer prayer before sporting events. In addition, they may not invite a guest, such as a religious leader or professional athlete, to offer prayer before sporting events. The Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution provides that the government may not establish a religion. The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted this clause to mean that public school districts, which are operated by the government, must remain neutral on the subject of religion. Therefore, their officials and employees cannot encourage or discourage prayer. The Supreme Court specifically said that this requirement of neutrality includes the pre-game ceremonies of school sporting events.
Can Athletes or Other Students Have Prayer Before Sporting Event in Small Groups?
Yes. Prayer before sporting events by groups of students, such as the group prayers frequently seen on the sidelines of professional sporting events, is legal. Voluntary, student-led prayers are protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. While the school district cannot encourage these prayers or cause any student to feel compelled to participate, it is also illegal for the school, or any other entity or person, to prohibit them. Schools may only prohibit First Amendment speech by students, including prayers, if it materially and substantially interferes with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school. In order to avoid interfering with these requirements, students wishing to pray in groups before games should generally observe the rules the school applies to pre-game activities by other groups, such as not blocking emergency exits, etc.
Can Students Lead a Public Prayer Before Sporting Events During Pre-Game Ceremonies?
The Supreme Court has not specifically addressed whether a student, unassisted by the school district, may offer public prayer before sporting events as part of the official pre-game activities. However, if the school has granted students freedom to open the sporting event and to compose their own content, the First Amendment generally would protect a studentís speech from censorship based on religious content.
What About Private Sports Leagues Involving School-Age Children?
The Establishment Clause requires neutrality only for the government, so private leagues, which are not funded or sponsored by a municipality or other government entity, may include prayer before sporting events. This is true even if the sporting event is held on publicly-owned land (such as a municipal playing field or state park) which is open to use by private groups.
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