Separation of Prayer and Football

Sermon given October 29, 1999, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Have I ever told you about my glory days as a member of my high school’s football team? Every Friday night, unless I was at a Temple youth event, I ran out onto the field. Hundreds, even thousands, of fans wildly chanted my name. Perhaps that’s why I became a rabbi: I couldn’t resist the Friday night spotlight!

Now, I know you’re curious, so I had better tell the whole truth. I was not the star quarterback, or even the offensive tackle. I was the guy who brought the water to the players during timeouts. But the fans really did chant my name!

Suffice it to say that I do understand the significance of high school football, especially in Texas, where this sport has gained special status as a quasi-religion. Sports need not be dismissed as trivial. Children learn important values and skills, from fitness to teamwork to socialization, by participating in athletics. Communities are brought together and unified when they gather to cheer for the local team. The common purpose of coming together for a sporting event can direct a group to higher collective goals. I am a sports fan. I acknowledge the positive aspects of high school football, in Texas and beyond, even though I wish that it didn’t so often conflict with Shabbat.

This year, though, the Friday night Texas football field has become a battleground, not just for high school heroes, but for the separation of church and state. Ruling in a lawsuit brought by a family near Galveston, the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has decreed that public prayers may not be offered at public school football games. This legal action has brought a firestorm of criticism, not only from the usual quarters of the religious right, but from ordinary men and women, and especially high school students, across our state.

Many of our friends claim that their religious liberty is being restricted by a court that prevents them from praying together at an important community event. They are bereft by the imposition of change upon a beloved, time-honored ritual. Friday night football seems somewhat less sacred without the opening prayer.

Traditionally, the Jewish community has supported the separation of church and state. Since most Texas public high school football game prayers invoked the name of Jesus, we have not felt included in these prayers in the past, so we are glad to see them go. And yet, we are struck by the near unanimity of opinion in our wider community, as nearly everyone around us seems to bemoan the separation of prayer and football. We do not wish to be perceived as anti-prayer. We certainly don’t want to appear to denigrate high school football. Shall we, then, stay quiet on this matter of communal prayer at public school football games? If not, how can we explain our objections to our Christian friends and neighbors?

First, we must help our friends understand that we do not feel included in prayers that invoke the name of Jesus. When we visit a church, or if we choose to attend a Christian school, we expect that prayers will be offered in Jesus’ name. That’s how most Christians pray. We must never ask them to do any differently in a Christian environment, where we are guests.

Sometimes, though, a prayer is meant to include all who worship God, at a private but communal gathering. For example, at a meeting or celebration of a nonsectarian private agency, invocations and benedictions are appropriate. How, though, can Jews say “amen,” and feel that we have prayed, if the prayer is offered in Jesus’ name? If we are merely guests, we can respectfully appreciate a sectarian Christian prayer. If, though, we are participants, we should be invited to partake fully in the prayer experience. So, for example, the person offering the prayer may conclude by saying, “we offer this prayer in the Lord’s name.” Christians, then, may silently interpret the word “Lord” to refer to Jesus. At the same time, Jews and many others who worship God, but not Jesus, can understand the word “Lord” as meaning God. All who worship God are included in the prayer.

So what of the public high school football game? Couldn’t we simply suggest a compromise, that prayers be offered “in the name of the Lord,” so that all who worship God may feel fully included? Our problem would be solved. Our Jewish history, though, has taught us to be concerned with injustice done to others, not only to Jews.

We Jews are commanded to know the heart of the stranger, for we were strangers in the Land of Egypt. At public events, including high school football games, we Jews have too often been strangers, not just in Egypt, but also in the Land of Texas. When prayers have been offered in the name of Jesus, we have so often felt alien, even at events where we thought we were full participants. How, then, can we support a solution that would include us, and all who worship our God, but would exclude our fellow citizens who choose not to worship our God, or whose faith does not sanction public prayer?

This issue is of critical importance, precisely because high school football is a quasi-religion in our State. High school football unites communities. Its games offer common purpose to towns and neighborhoods. Of course, high school football is not religion, and if it replaces true religious faith, football can become idolatry. However, high school football is what social scientists call a ritual of our American civil religion, an important unifying element of our society. No public prayer can possibly be embraced by every single person at a public high school football game. But those very games are a powerful place, where each member of the school community must be included. Somebody will feel like a stranger, if a prayer is offered in the name of God, just as we Jews are guests, not participants, when prayers are uttered in the name of Jesus.

In my experience, speaking as I do to civic and religious groups throughout San Antonio, our Christian friends do not want us to be excluded from this community. If we will share our feelings of alienation with them, they will almost always change the way they pray at events that are meant to include us fully. Similarly, Jews and Christians together must embrace individuals of other faiths and of no faith, be they Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, or even atheists. All are members of our community, particularly at public school events.

Two weeks from tonight, I will not be here in the Temple for Shabbat, because I will be with our Confirmation Class at their annual retreat. Our theme will be the challenges of being Jewish in a non-Jewish world. If this year’s retreat bears any resemblance to those of every single previous year, the faculty and I will hear one horror story after the other from our students. They will tell us that they frequently feel like aliens in their public schools, particularly in athletic programs. A football player will tell us that he was punished for missing a practice on Yom Kippur. A member of the dance team will explain how her entire team was expected to raise funds for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. A volleyball player will tell us that her coach offers preferential treatment to participants in Young Life. We can be proud of our kids, who frequently stand up to these conditions, occasionally risking athletic participation and friendships that they value. Even through our pride, though, we must acknowledge that public high school athletics are the front lines in the battle for the separation of church and state in America, and for the Jewish identity of our young people. We must consider how much worse the problem must be for children whose families are committed to other faiths or to no faith, who are neither Christians nor Jews.

We must also affirm that prayer has never been banned from public schools, or from high school football games. Propagandists of the religious right have claimed that their liberties have been restricted, that people can not pray in school. That assertion is simply false. As has so often been said, “As long as there are math tests, there will be prayer in school.” Beyond that trivial example, though, the right to pray is alive and well, even in the public school, as well it should be. Individual students may pray on school property, alone or in groups. Even at high school football games, if students choose to get together to pray before the game, nobody could or should stop them. The law merely prevents the offering of a public prayer, planned as part of the event that is supposed to include everybody in attendance.

One other matter must concern our Jewish community, as we continue our fight for the separation of church and state, against the grain of our society. We must make very clear, not only through our words, but mostly through our actions, that we do believe in prayer. Our call for separation of prayer and football will fall on deaf ears, if we do not model to the world that people of faith, people who pray, can yet affirm that some prayers do not belong in some places. Yes, we oppose public prayers at public schools, but we do not oppose prayer. No, we do not wish to hear a prayer over the loudspeaker at a high school football game, but we do engage in prayer in our synagogue. Yes, we support the separation of church and state, and yes, we pray, frequently and fervently, in our homes and on our way, when we lie down and when we rise up, quietly in our offices and at our desks in school, and with joyful song in the Temple.

May we always remember the heart of the stranger, and struggle to assure that no American, no Texan, will feel alien at any public school event in this great land of opportunity for all. May people of good will of every faith soon acknowledge, to quote Rabbi Stahl, that prayers can hurt. Prayers cause harm when they exclude those we wish to include. May those good people then join us in support of the Constitution of the United States, in opposition to public prayer at high school football games. May we, the Jewish people, rededicate ourselves to prayer in our private lives, here at Temple and wherever we may be. Then, may we truly be a light to nations, fulfilling our destiny and our highest calling, prayerfully, with dedication to the inclusion of each person, regardless of faith, as a full participant in our American community.