At last Friday’s Haralson County Rebels football game, thousands of residents came out to show their support for the team; however, many were reportedly there to show their support for team prayer.
After the announcement that Haralson County High School would no longer be holding prayer over the PA system before home football games, many local residents were upset. However, faced with a possible law suit from two organizations, Freedom From Religion (FFR) and Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), Haralson County Schools Superintendant Brett Stanton said it was his responsibility to keep the school system out of a lawsuit.
“The Haralson County School System strives to provide the best learning environment possible for all of our students,” Stanton said in a prepared statement. “We have recently been faced with the threat of legal action regarding prayer from the public address system before home football games. Personally, it saddens me since my faith is a very important part of my life.
“However, from a professional standpoint and as the superintendent of the Haralson County Schools, I have a responsibility to protect the school system from litigation. This is very difficult for our board members, employees and for me, but until the laws are changed, we will abide by the guidelines set forth by the Constitution of the United States.”
However, students and local residents took it upon themselves last Friday to ensure prayer was still held before the game.
The Rev. Mason Bush, pastor at Providence Baptist Church in Tallapoosa, said an “unreal amount of people” showed up to support the prayer Friday night.
“I think we have made and impact and sent a message,” Bush said. “Prayer is important, no matter what religion it is.”
Bush had been the team chaplain for 15 years, but stepped down this year. He’ll no longer be leading prayers on the field, in the field house or over the PA system. Neither will coaches. However, the law doesn’t prevent the students from leading prayers, and many students did on Friday night.
“I’m very proud of Haralson County,” said Tallapoosa City Councilman Dan Pope. “The football team prayed, the cheerleaders prayed, people joined in. It was great to see.”
Many students and residents were also sporting T-shirts with slogans, such as “I’m a Rebel, and I pray,” “We play, but we pray harder,” and “Our school, our prayer, our way.”
Sarah McIntire, a Buchanan resident whose son plays on the football team, said she was not surprised at the response during Friday’s football game.
“Their response is not unexpected, and I understand and respect that,” she said. “[because] there’s a difference between voluntarily doing this and being forced to listen to what was basically an altar call before the game.”
McIntire, who is one of the group of people who contacted FFR and AU, said she didn’t have a problem with a prayer for protection for the players before the game. However, she said the prayer would often go on and request visitors to accept Jesus Christ into their hearts.
“That just went too far,” McIntire said. “What if we had visitors at the game who were Muslim or Jewish? Asking them to accept Jesus as their savior would have been highly offensive.”
Stanton confirmed that having prayer before the football games does in fact violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by allowing the school system (or government) to favor one religion over another.
McIntire said she sent letters to the principal of the high school as well as to the Central Office during previous football seasons about the prayers; however, said she received no reply. At that time, she and others decided to seek outside help.
“We tried to remedy this in-house,” she said, “but Freedom From Religion and AU were the groups we turned to when we felt we needed assistance.”
McIntire says many have suggested to her that she leave the football games if she is offended by the prayer.
“But why should I have to leave after I’ve paid to get in and see my son play football?” she said. “Why should I have to leave because they are doing something unconstitutional?”
The Rev. Jason Hatchett, pastor of First Baptist Church in Tallapoosa, said he has begun to seek legal advice from the Liberty Council to explore options to restore prayer at the games.
“We just want to see what our options are to approach it in the proper way,” he said. “In general, we’re just tired of being run over. I’d like to see people come together and say ‘no’ to the government telling us what we can and can’t do.
Bush also said that local residents plan to continue showing their support for prayer by participating in student-led prayers before the games.
“This was great, but we need people to come back every chance they get,” Bush said. “It’s going to take more than one time to send the message to the legislators.”