Thursday, October 27, 2011

Church, State, and the Ambiguity of Banquets

When a school endorses, even tacitly, a religious viewpoint, they send a message of coercion to students and the community.  This is a tribalistic coercion, one that religious institutions thrive upon — those who aren't inclined to be chastised, embarrassed, or shunned are alternatively inclined to feign agreement with others.  This is why religion and government must be completely separated.  If you doubt this notion, or wish for further background on my thoughts, please read my previous post on school-sponsored prayer.

At our soccer banquet a few weeks ago, just before the event officially began, the head coach was speaking to a parent and I was standing nearby.  They turned to me and asked if I would deliver the opening prayer.
"Isn't this a school-sponsored event?" I asked.  They looked puzzled.  "If this is officially a school-sponsored event, that would be illegal."

"Well, the school didn't arrange this, we organized it ourselves," said the parent.  The banquet was hosted by a local church.

I don't remember my next statement as clearly, but the question of organization did punch a dart-sized hole in the sails of my argument.  "I understand, but I'm still not sure if we can do that," I responded, referring to the entire group being led in prayer.

Upon hearing the head coach's next statement, my heart sunk and my blood boiled: "It doesn't matter anyway, we're doing it."  They walked away.

I did nothing and the prayer was led by one of our players.  While irrelevant, he spoke well and thoughtfully.  More relevantly, he did not ramble about Jesus, but otherwise spoke directly and explicitly to God.
Lee v. Weisman is of vital importance here.  The Supreme Court determined that a school-endorsed, even nonsectarian, prayer at a public high school graduation ceremony is unconstitutional.  The decision uses strong language in opposition to such school endorsement (emphasis always mine):
The principle that government may accommodate the free exercise of religion does not supersede the fundamental limitations imposed by the Establishment Clause, which guarantees at a minimum that a government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise...
...supervision and control of a high school graduation ceremony places subtle and indirect public and peer pressure on attending students to stand as a group or maintain respectful silence during the invocation and benediction. A reasonable dissenter of high school age could believe that standing or remaining silent signified her own participation in, or approval of, the group exercise, rather than her respect for it. And the State may not place the student dissenter in the dilemma of participating or protesting.
However, there are aspects of the decision that indicate it does not apply 100% to such athletic banquet situations:
Petitioners' argument that the option of not attending the ceremony excuses any inducement or coercion in the ceremony itself is rejected. In this society, high school graduation is one of life's most significant occasions, and a student is not free to absent herself from the exercise in any real sense of the term "voluntary."
Lee's decision that prayers should be given and his selection of the religious participant are choices attributable to the State. Moreover, through the pamphlet and his advice that the prayers be nonsectarian, he directed and controlled the prayers' content.
While our banquet had no pamphlet, no direct control over the prayer, no clergy involved, and is surely considered more voluntary than graduation, the wording regarding pressure and coercion seem to readily apply.  Maybe there's more...

Ah, yes, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe.  As a conclusion to a debacle in which a school district twisted themselves into knots in order to support an invocation at their football games (the prayer was argued to be "student-led," and "private speech,"), the Supreme Court decided that even at this extracurricular, athletic event, and even with a student-body-elected student speaker, such endorsed prayer is unconstitutional. Some choice quotes:
The second part of the District’s argument–that there is no coercion here because attendance at an extracurricular event, unlike a graduation ceremony, is voluntary–is unpersuasive. For some students, such as cheerleaders, members of the band, and the team members themselves, attendance at football games is mandated, sometimes for class credit. The District’s argument also minimizes the immense social pressure, or truly genuine desire, felt by many students to be involved in the extracurricular event that is American high school football.... The Constitution demands that schools not force on students the difficult choice between whether to attend these games or to risk facing a personally offensive religious ritual.
...the District has established a governmental mechanism that turns the school into a forum for religious debate and empowers the student body majority to subject students of minority views to constitutionally improper messages. The award of that power alone is not acceptable.
There isn't much in this decision that can't be argued applies completely to our banquet, but there is a catch in the use of the term, "official,"
A conclusion that the message is not “private speech” is also established by factors beyond the policy’s text, including the official setting in which the invocation is delivered....
Where is the "official" line drawn?  At administrative endorsement?  At a coach's introduction?  At some degree of involuntary attendance?

A few days after our banquet, I spoke to our Athletic Director.  We had a very good discussion regarding the gray areas involved, as well as the nature of our community and, frankly, the desire to retain quality coaches.  We both agreed that if a significant challenge to this prayer were to be made, it would be much more effective if a student or parent initiated it.  A court might even say that as a teacher, I am above the kind of social pressure discussed in the cases above, and therefore am not harmed and have no standing to complain.  Ultimately, however, in a community where invocations are expected, challenges aren't made, and retainment of key coaches may depend on their ability to run banquets as they please, what student would dare step up?  Perhaps I should try to convince Jessica Ahlquist to move here and join the soccer team.

In the end...I hope it's the end...the AD spoke to the Superintendent and decided to send an email to all head coaches.  He asked that instead of inviting prayer, they lead a "moment of reflection" instead.  While the ardent crusader of principles in me is tempted to dig into Wallace v. Jaffree and the possibly contradictory Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act in Illinois, I'm satisfied for now...

...and a little nervous about our spring soccer season.  I've had no contact with the head soccer coach since that email was sent.


  1. I love the title of this post, and the topic is one that has crossed my mind on more than one occasion throughout my banquet-going career as a player and coach in public school athletics. The term "official" makes the situation quite unclear. While the case law you have cited is certainly indicative of a trend favorable to a better-defined separation of church and state, none of it applies 100% to the circumstances you have outlined, and much of your situation still remains entirely unaddressed in case law. Whether something is "school-sponsored/endorsed" is oftentimes a matter of funding. For example, students can pray independently (or even in a self-organized group, depending on the conditions) on a voluntary basis while at school, but they cannot use the school's PA system to conduct a student-led prayer. Booster clubs have blurred the line with respect to funding when it comes to public school athletics. Who paid the rental costs of the banquet facility in question? Can it be fairly stated that the team, and therefore the banquet, only existed as a result of district funding? Does having district-paid coaches at the banquet constitute school funding? Or does the banquet fall outside of the coaches' formal responsibilities? These are all questions that would have to be answered. I don't have the answers, and I won't pretend to know how the courts would rule even if the facts surrounding those questions were clearly established.

  2. Your questions hit at the heart of my reference to the ambiguity of banquets. I don't actually know from whence funding came, which is why the parent's mention of who organized the banquet had legitimacy.

    Of likely relevance is the fact that we coaches do not get paid for the season until we host a banquet, which would seem to imply that we are being paid to represent the school by leading the event.