It has been a long-standing tradition to pray over the loudspeaker before home football games at Opelika High School. As the season continues, students are taking the prayer into their own hands.
This football season began the same way others had — with a loudspeaker prayer. But that practice soon changed.
After Opelika’s first home game on Aug. 22, a person identified as a concerned parent contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit that works to protect the separation of church and state as written in the Constitution, according to their mission statement.
The group then sent a letter addressed to Opelika City School Superintendent Mark Neighbors. In the letter, which a stamp indicates was received on Sept. 3, the group explains the concerned parent contacted them to report feeling alienated at the game because of the loudspeaker prayer that was predominantly Christian in nature.
“Our complainant reported feeling alienated because of this prayer and noted that it made them want to move their children out of the district,” reads the letter signed by Christopher Line, staff attorney at FFRF. “Our complainant also reported that they have seen coaches praying with students during practices and games.”
The letter requested the school district discontinue the pregame prayer and no longer schedule prayers before school events.
In a statement released to media, the school said it did just that.
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At the next home football game on Sept. 13, Opelika High School settled the issue by stopping the loudspeaker prayer, instead opting for a moment of silence before the start of the game. Students, however, prayed the Lord’s Prayer during this time.
“Students are of course free to pray as much as they want,” Line said. “The problem here is the school endorsing that prayer and broadcasting it over the loudspeaker. There is no problem with students choosing on their own to pray.”
The letter went on to cite several Supreme Court cases where school prayer was involved.
Each case’s ruling explained school-endorsed prayer and staff participation is not allowed
“We recognize that the United States of America is a nation of laws, and we will abide by the current law,” said Opelika City Schools Superintendent Mark Neighbors in the school’s statement. “Our students are allowed to pray, but our coaches are not allowed to participate.”
According to the statement, Opelika City Schools’ board attorney is reviewing the letter and current laws to confirm what is permissible for students. The school system said it’s currently not granting interviews on the subject and referred reporters to the statement.
Many parents and students told The Plainsman that they supported the prayer before the game, calling it a school tradition.
Other students and parents agreed with the change. Another high school parent said that the moment of silence allows students of all religions to pray as they choose before the game.
Similar events have occurred in other Alabama schools in recent years. Smith Station High School went through the same events in 2017.
“In Alabama, we get various school districts to stop broadcasting prayer over the loudspeaker,” Line said. “We don’t go out looking for violations. We receive more than 5,000 complaints every year from people all across the country.”
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