Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Faith and football a controversial pairing

With a win over county power Land O'Lakes behind it, the Zephyrhills High School football team flocked to the end zone to celebrate and reflect. Coach Reggie Roberts told his Bulldogs about the mistakes they just made. He reminded them of the lofty goals still ahead. And before they broke the huddle, with the Friday night lights still shining from their biggest win in years, the players bowed their heads. "Whose father?" Roberts shouted. "Our father," his team answered, "who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name … "

Although 50 years have passed since the Supreme Court outlawed mandatory prayer in public schools, faith and football remain intertwined in locker rooms from Plant City to Brooksville.

"The Scriptures say a family that prays together stays together," Roberts said. "I think that makes us closer."

But where Roberts sees unity, others see division.

The Pasco County School District is exploring prayer's place in high school sports, and outside experts suggest the practice blurs the line separating church and state.

"Rather than bringing us together, it may be divisive," said H. Roy Kaplan, former executive director of the National Conference of Christians and Jews for Tampa Bay. "In order to unite the team, we have to contemplate the diversity."

School officials: prayer not permissible

In parts of Tampa Bay, faith hangs openly over high school football.

Mitchell and Land O'Lakes prayed together at midfield after a recent game. Pasco High has ended practices with the Lord's Prayer. Plant City bursts through a banner bearing a verse from the Book of Joshua. Sunlake observed a moment of silence after one of its biggest upsets in school history.

"I'm just thankful for the idea that we can pray," Roberts said. "That's one thing about Zephyrhills. You're looking at a conservative community, in my belief, that believes in God and believes in the Constitution and how this country was built."

Some religious activities at games — such as student-led or silent prayer — are less contested. But just how far the Constitution permits coaches to go remains arguable.

Hours before Friday night's games, Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning and Hernando County officials sent memos to their staffs, reminding them that district employees should not lead prayers with students. Because coaches are paid with public dollars, they cannot be involved with religious practices while they're conducting district business, Browning said.

"The last thing we need is to have students feeling they are coerced or obligated to be part of that kind of activity," Browning said.

Under a state law passed last year, districts can adopt policies allowing students to deliver inspirational messages before school-sponsored events. No district has done so.

In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional for students to pray over the loudspeakers before high school football games in a Texas school district. Five years ago, a federal appeals court ruled that a New Jersey coach violated the First Amendment by leading his team in silent reflection.

Whenever these cases come to court, those promoting public prayer "lose every single time" because the government would be endorsing religion, said Kaplan, also a professor in Africana Studies at USF.

"It is inappropriate," Kaplan said. "It's not something that should be at all sanctioned by the school systems."

It isn't.

The Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco districts prohibit employees from leading devotional exercises while on the job. Hillsborough's bylaws specifically ban "formal prayer at any school-sponsored event," while Hernando permits moments of silence.

Pinellas allows only student-led prayers — something county athletic director Nick Grasso hasn't seen.

"If a coach sat the team down and said we're going to do an Our Father, that ain't happening," Grasso said.

Pasco athletic director Phil Bell said no one has complained to him about coach-led prayers. Still, he met with school athletic directors this month to reinforce the district's rules: Any prayer must be led by students or limited to moments of silence.

"The rights of any minority," Pasco's policy states, "no matter how small, must be protected."

Community schools, religion interlaced

With the school day finally over on a recent Friday at Zephyrhills, the team left in its orange jerseys to walk to church for a pregame dinner and devotional.

A marquee in front of First Christian Church welcomed the Bulldogs before their home game against Mitchell. A dozen volunteers greeted them inside with meat and potatoes and homemade cupcakes.

The players filed past a framed picture of the Last Supper on their way into the fellowship hall. They held hands and circled the Rev. Doug Richardson.

"I'm not doing this to get these kids into pews," Richardson said. "I'm doing it to make a difference in kids' lives."

Richardson said he wanted to provide a good meal for the boys who might not get many of them at home. He told them they can feel safe here, if they're ever in trouble or need someone to listen. He blessed the teachers and the food and the team. He asked the Lord to grant them a win.

"Amen," the team answered.

No one spoke against it. But that doesn't mean everyone approved, said David Barkey, the Anti-Defamation League's national religious freedom counsel.

Some children might not feel confident enough to speak up, Barkey said. Coaches control playing time, and fellow teenagers provide peer pressure, so it's hard to oppose them, even if a player is Muslim or Jewish or atheist.

"Like it or not, religion can be divisive if one religion is favored over the other," Barkey said. "This has nothing to do with hostility toward religion. … It has to do with the fact that we're in a religiously diverse nation."

Even devout followers are unsure of how to balance a team's faith with its diversity.

Many Hernando High teammates worship together on Sundays, and the team holds devotional sessions before games. Two assistants and a volunteer coach are officials in their churches. One of them recently ended a postpractice huddle by asking God to look after the team: "In Jesus' name I pray," the assistant said, "and we should all say, 'amen.' "

Hernando captain Jeremiah Jackson said he is unsure of how an atheist would feel in that situation, but he has thought about it. Opposing the prayer, Jackson said, would be like being the only person at a party who doesn't want pizza. Would you go against the team, or choke down a slice?

"I think our team is based on Christianity," said Jackson, the son of a pastor. "Right now we know we're not strong in numbers. We can't do this without God."

Religion is an integral part of Zephyr­hills, too. Forty-seven churches stand within 3 miles of the football stadium, according to county records. The local AM radio station broadcasts Bulldog football games on Friday nights and gospel services on Sunday mornings.

Roberts remembers saying the Lord's Prayer when he played there in the late 1980s. Two decades later, he continues to lead prayers before practice, to ask God to keep the players safe, and afterward, to say thanks and ask for safe travels home.

Roberts recognizes that not everyone agrees with team prayer. That's why he told his players over the summer to let him know if they're uncomfortable. They don't have to come to churches or join hands. If most of his players didn't want to pray, Roberts said he'd lead a session on the side instead.

But Roberts said his team doesn't want to stop.

Some of his players wear crosses around their necks or pump themselves up before games with gospel music. Most of the Bulldogs went to the voluntary Fellowship of Christian Athletes team camp over the summer. While there, 10 of them accepted Jesus as their savior.

In four years as head coach, Roberts hasn't heard a complaint from a parent or athlete about prayer.

"If any of these young men choose not to (pray), they can still play football, enjoy Zephyrhills football and be a part of this family," said Roberts, a former deacon.

"If a child wasn't ready to accept Christ, then maybe I'll pray for him. I'll pray for him, but I will not force my religion on anybody."

A message for nonbelievers

With the Bulldogs still finishing their plates at First Christian Church, Roberts finally rose for his pregame speech.

His inspiration came from Luke 14:15-24 — the parable of the great banquet. His voice rose and fell as he paced back and forth in front of the illuminated cross and stained glass.

Roberts' message was more pep talk than sermon. In Jesus' parable, a man invites guests over for a banquet, but they all make excuses. The Bulldogs, Roberts said, had worked too hard for too long to not show up against Mitchell, their toughest opponent of the season thus far.

Would they make excuses? Or would they be ready to feast?

"Even if they don't believe in (Christianity), that's motivation right there," said Jordan Roberts, a Zephyrhills senior receiver and no relation to his coach.

Before the coach finished, he reminded his team that the parable had another meaning. The pastor had given them an invitation, too.

"These doors are always open," Reggie Roberts said. "That's an individual decision. That's all I'm going to say about that."

Six hours later, after his Bulldogs feasted on Mitchell with a 17-9 win, both teams met at midfield. And before they broke the huddle, with the Friday night lights still shining from above, the players bowed their heads.

Together, they prayed.

Staff writer Bob Putnam and news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @JeffSolochek.

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