HOUSTON – Prayer at Houston athletic events is as much a part of the game as popcorn, cokes and the National Anthem, but a new state law requires schools that pray to follow a state-mandated policy on school prayer.
The Houston School District Board of Trustees held their first reading Aug. 12, of a new policy that would allow prayer in school and at school sponsored events. Monday’s reading was the first of three required public readings that could culminate with the adoption of a formal policy in 90 days on how prayers will be conducted.
“Students have the right under certain circumstances to have prayer,” said Houston Superintendent Dr. Steve Coker. “The law as signed by Gov. Phil Bryant requires us to have a policy and that policy can’t deviate from the framework set up in this legislation.”
Coker pointed out the law went into effect this summer and has been vetted by the Mississippi School Board Association. Coker also pointed out Houston was one of the last school districts in the state to have a public prayer at football games last fall. The district stopped the practice when concerns were raised the district faced legal action if it didn’t stop prayer prior to football games.
“The legislation is almost a trap,” said Coker. “It allows prayer if you have a policy and then the law carefully defines what you can and cannot do.”
A prayer policy would require the district to make a list of students “in leadership roles,” then randomly pick a student from that list and ask them if they wanted to lead the prayer at the next public event. The policy also requires the district to then read a disclaimer saying it in no way endorses or prohibits religious expression. The policy also allows prayers from different religions.
School Board Attorney James Hood said the law was poorly written.
“I don’t believe you can follow it as it is written,” said Hood. “And if you don’t follow it somebody will sue you. This is typical of the laws written by the Legislature year after year.”
Coker said the board could not do anything and not have prayer at the first football game Aug. 23, adopt a policy as outlined by the state or let students initiate a prayer and “see what happens.”
Coker said as a state employee he will always follow the law, but as superintendent he would also execute the wishes of the school board.
“I will do what you tell me to do,” said Coker. “But if it goes to court I want you there with me.”
Board President Bart Munlin said he felt prayer at football games “can pull us together,” but he focused on the district’s intent for having prayer.
“The mother and father who earnestly pray their son or daughter not get hurt is one thing,” said Munlin. “A group that gets together to pray under a law put forth by the legislature may be something else.”
Trustee Thomas Howell said the district needed to take a close look at the new law and discuss it in the community.
“I think we owe it to our schools and community to look at this,” said Howell.
Trustee Daniel Heeringa, who is also pastor at Houston First Baptist Church, also urged the board to not rush into this and to craft a policy that honored the law and satisfied the community.
“This is a sacred right of passage, if you will, at ballgames,” said Heeringa. “It is something we like to do right along with the National Anthem. It is sacred to those who may or may not have a regular prayer life.”
As public address announcer, Heeringa said he was approached by people last year when prayer was stopped at ballgames. Heeringa said he also questioned the timing of this move and if public prayer was a part of other Houston athletic events.
Trustee Carol Byrne said the district was on the right course and needed to craft a policy.
“I think we need to do what we did last year until we get a policy in place,” said Byrne. “I don’t think we need to do anything that puts the school district in jeopardy. We need to protect our schools and the district.”
Coker said students have already gotten wind of this ruling and may try to do something on their own.
“The administration needs to follow the policy in place now,” said Munlin. “We also need to move forward on this new policy.”
Hood said policy would not stop anyone wanting to stop prayer at Houston schools from suing the district.
“That little piece of paper is not going to stop a lawsuit,” said Hood. “Like I said earlier, this policy will be difficult to follow and if you don’t follow it you will be sued.”