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Religion and Sports (Constitutional and Biblical Issues)

The Constitution of the United States provides for numerous freedoms and rights. The Constitution has been amended 27 times and has provided the Supreme Court numerous opportunities to interpret its meaning.

One of the more relevant, controversial, and constitutional issues in sports is the issue and practice of religion by sports participants and coaches. For example, can prayers be led prior to sports contests at private or public high schools, colleges, and universities? Do moments of silence constitute illegal prayers? Can a coach counsel an athlete using Christian principles? The answers are not clear.

One of the basic philosophical foundations of the United States is the separ­ation between church and state; in other words, the government may not promote, endorse, or advance a particular religion. This was reaction by the founding fathers to the influence that the Church of England had over the government in the late 1700’s. Some of our Supreme Court decisions have, in my opinion, distorted what the founding fathers had in mind.

While the United States is willing to the accept of the practice of varied religious beliefs, it is not acceptable for the state or government to impose a par­ticular religion over another on its citizens. Studying religion and its impact on sports offers few certainties. This area of the law, like many areas involving sports, continues to evolve. Two clauses found in the Constitution are the focus of the subject of religion and sports: the establishment clause and the free exercise clause.

In order to understand the basics of the freedoms afforded by our Constitution, one must start at the beginning of the Bill of Rights in the First Amendment. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Notice in the First Amendment the phrases establishment of religion and free exercise thereof. Many refer to these two clauses as the religion clauses of the Constitution.

Prayer Before Sporting Events

An area of the law that continues to remain uncertain and controversial is the prayer before a sports contest. While prayers before sports contests and graduation ceremonies have been common in the United States for numerous years, recent legal challenges to such organized prayers have forced the courts to address whether such prayers are constitutional. For example, do prayers prior to sports contests advance a particular religion? Do prayers advance any religion? Is there a difference between state-funded institutions and private institutions, which may in fact be traditionally religious based institutions of higher learning? Does it matter who leads the prayer? Is it different for students to lead a prayer as opposed to the school’s administration? [1]

Prayer at Graduation Ceremonies

It is a widely held tradition in American society that a prayer of some sort is said at high school and college graduation ceremonies. The courts appear to have dealt with school prayer more often associated with graduation ceremonies than sporting events. Still, does saying a prayer in either context advance or impose a particular religion and thereby violate the Constitution? What about a moment of silence? It appears that key to understanding the legality of prayers at graduation ceremonies is whether the prayer is voluntary or state sponsored.

Courts, at the present time, use three tests to determine whether prayers in schools are constitutional:

  • The Lemon test — An action must have a secular purpose. Its primary effect must neither advance nor inhibit religion, and it must not result in an excessive entan­glement with religion. This test has its own three-pronged test.[2] Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971)
  • The Endorsement test [3] — The government cannot endorse, favor, promote, or prefer any religious belief or practice. County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, 492 U.S. 573 (1989)
  • The Coercion test [4] — The government may not coerce anyone to sup­port or participate in religion or its exercise. Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992)

In Chaudhuri v. State of Tennessee, 130 F. 3d 232 (6th Cir. 1997), the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals considered legal challenges to the allowance of prayers at univer­sity functions and the recitation of The Lord’s Prayer [5]  at Tennessee State University’s (TSU) graduation ceremony. A lawsuit was filed by mechanical engi­neering professor Dilip Chaudhuri, a Hindu. He objected to a custom of prayers being offered at graduation exercises, faculty meetings, dedication ceremonies, and guest lectures at the Nashville school.

In response, TSU officials decided that all such prayers at university events would be generic and nonsectarian.[6] Still not satisfied, Chaudhuri then filed suit in federal district court. After he filed the lawsuit, TSU changed its policy to include a moment of silence, rather than a verbal prayer, at graduation exercises. The district court dismissed the claims. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld and said that generic prayers have a secular purpose of dignifying or memorializing a public event, that they do not entangle church and state, and that they do not impermis­sibly advance or inhibit religion.  

The Court of Appeals noted that since Mr. Chaudhuri was not required to par­ticipate in any religious exercise, his free exercise claim was without merit. The Supreme Court declined to hear the professor’s challenge to generic prayers and moments of silence at Tennessee State University functions. The court did not deal with a previous ruling that generic prayers and moments of silence at university events do not violate the First Amendment.

Prior to 1995, a Texas student elected as Santa Fe High School’s student council chaplain delivered a prayer over the public address system before each home varsity football game. Mormon and Catholic students or alumni and their mothers filed a lawsuit challenging this practice under the establishment clause of the United States Constitution. After the students held elections authorizing such prayers and selecting a spokesperson, the District Court entered an order modifying the policy to permit only nonsectarian, non-proselytizing prayer.[7] In Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000), the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that, even as modified by the District Court, the football prayer policy was invalid. The Supreme Court of the United States agreed and held in its 2000 decision that student-led, student­ initiated prayers at public high school football games and graduation ceremonies are unconstitutional and violate the establishment clause.

Adler I [8]

Students and parents in this Florida school district challenged the school board’s guidelines that allowed prayer at graduation ceremonies. The guidelines provided that graduating seniors should decide whether or not to have a brief opening or closing message at graduation ceremonies, who should give this message, and what the content of the message should be. The stated purpose of the guidelines was to allow students alone to direct their graduation message. The words prayer, benediction, or invocation were not used in the guidelines themselves. There was no requirement in the guidelines that the mes­sage be nonsectarian. Schools delegated decision making to the students. Prayers were given at the commencement ceremonies of 10 of the 17 schools in the district.

After a lawsuit was initiated, the school district asserted that there was no viola­tion because the school had delegated authority to the students. The defendant school board also argued that a graduation ceremony was a limited public forum, and, therefore, to not allow the students to engage in religious speech would vio­late the religion clauses.

Adler II[9]

In May 1998, a new lawsuit (Adler II) was filed in which students with graduation dates from 1998 to 2000 were named as plaintiffs. The Florida district court again granted judgment for defendants, and the case was again appealed to the l1th Circuit. This time, the 11th Circuit reversed the district court and struck down the Duval County school system’s graduation policy. The court determined that the Duval County graduation prayer regulations were unconstitutional. The case was granted certiorari,[10] and the Supreme Court vacated the judgment and remanded the case to the 11th Circuit for further consideration in light of its recent decision in Santa Fe which held that student-led prayers at public high school foot­ball games are unconstitutional.

The 11th Circuit reconsidered the case and reinstated its original Adler I deci­sion and held that student-led prayer is acceptable in Duval County. The 11th Circuit favored the County and after reviewing the Sante Fe case it felt that the differences between the two cases were substantial and material. Adler was denied certiorari in 2001. There is somewhat of a contradiction between the cases. The difference between Adler and Santa Fe is that the school policy in Adler allows students to speak on any topic of their choice. The message can be religious or secular. The Adler policy promotes student speech and is neutral and therefore constitutional. The court found that the policy was neutral toward student speech and did not inject the government into determining the content of student speech.

It is still unclear whether such prayers are valid at private high schools, before col­lege sporting events, or even at the professional level though such activities occur regularly. It is likely that private organizations that do not receive federal or state funds may say prayers of their choosing without fear of a lawsuit. However, even pro­fessional sports organizations play in publicly funded arenas which, theoretically, could be a means to establish a claim (a remote one) that there has been a violation between the tradition of separation between church and state.[11]

What happens when individual athletes express their religious beliefs during sports contests? Does this violate the separation between church and state? When an ath­lete looks and points to the sky after a score, does this advance a particular religion?

Is it legal when opposing players kneel at mid-field after a game, holding hands in prayer? Does that advance a particular religion, or is it merely a time for introspec­tion? What about high school or college student-athletes at publicly funded institu­tions expressing their post-game religious prayers?

There are numerous situations that may occur around a sports context that call into question whether or not there may be a violation of the principle of separation between church and state. Consider the following, for example: 

1.       A coach asks her players to join hands in prayer prior to a sports contest;

2.       A school broadcasts a prayer over the stadium loudspeaker;

3.       Fans in the stands pray together by bowing their heads in prayer;

4.       Students at a sporting event hold their own prayer;

5.       A player reads from a religious book, alone, in the team’s locker room;

6.       A player preaching to other members on the sidelines encouraging unity and support from a higher power.[12]

All of the above are only a few of the possible scenarios that the legal system has yet to clearly define.

Players at all levels of sports continue to express their religious beliefs and are often not penalized for doing so. For example, Sandy Koufax, a Jewish left-handed pitcher, made headlines in 1965 when he refused to pitch the first game of the World Series for the Dodgers because it fell on holiday of Yom Kippur. Shawn Green of the Los Angeles Dodgers did not partic­ipate in a game late in the season due to his recognition of Yom Kippur. Vince Lombardi, the coach of the Green Bay Packers, regularly took his team to Catholic mass every Sunday before games. Not all religious athletes, however, decide not to participate in a sports contest due to their religious affiliation or beliefs.[13]

Still, is it right for a college coach at a publicly funded institution to require his or her athletes to attend religious services? What if a player does not wish to say a pregame prayer and is penalized for such conduct? There is no doubt that members of different religious groups witness their beliefs to other athletes even at public institutions. It may even be acceptable to associate oneself with a particular religious organ­ization either willingly or due to pressure from one athlete to another. However, public institutions must be aware that promoting or advancing a particular religion or a religious organization, no matter how small the involvement, will likely raise eyebrows and could even be the subject matter of a passionate lawsuit.[14]

Mandatory prayer should not required before, during, or after school-sponsored gradua­tion or most sporting events. Often prayers or moments of silence are utilized as art of such events. Such prayers present extremely difficult challenges for the courts to determine whether a violation of the Constitution has occurred. It appears that there is no definitive rule in this area, but American courts employ guidelines such as the Lemon test, the endorsement test, and the coercion test to determine whether the state may be advancing a particular religion or religion in general and whether a public display of religion is acceptable under certain circumstances on a case-by-case basis. However, student-led, student-initiated prayers at graduation ceremonies appear to be unconstitutional.[15]

  • Should religion be totally removed from the context of sport?
  • Do you feel that the events of September 11, 2001, have affected how American society views religion and sport?
  • What constitutional amendments are primarily at work when considering a reli­gion and sports case?

 What is the responsibility of a Christian Coach to Share his Faith

Matthew 6: 19-20 says: Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

Romans 13:1 says: Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. (New International Version). We are to recognize the authority of our government and submit to it. This involves obedience to the laws that are established by those who are in authority. As Christians we are to be law-abiding citizens. ( 1 Peter 2:13-17; Romans 13:1-7; Titus 3:1-2). Civil authority acts on God’s behalf to maintain order, uphold justice, and punish wrongdoing. (Romans 13:4-5).

1 Peter 2:13 says, Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king . . . . or to governors . . .  God is sovereign and omnipotent. He is ultimately in control of all that happens on earth. While He does not condone evil, He does allow it to exist for now. He is in control, and no authority exists unless He allows it to exist. Christians are to submit to the human authorities over us, whether it is the government, our employer, or whomever. Yielding to human authority is an expression of yielding to God’s authority. God, as the ultimate authority, has determined that people should not operate in chaos and anarchy, but that some type of authority will maintain control.

The Bible is very clear about our responsibility to obey governmental authority.  Romans 13:1-7 says: Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Notice again the principle that government is established by God. In fact, the Bible says that rulers are servants of God. That may be hard to believe due to some of the corruption we see in government. But when Paul wrote this epistle, he was writing to citizens of Rome. The emperor of Rome at this time was Nero. 

What if the government (law) tells us to do something immoral or anti-biblical, or tells us not to do what God says we should do? The apostle Peter said: We must obey God rather than men! (Acts 5:29). Peter and John told authorities that if it came down to whether they would obey God or man, they would obey God. (Acts 4: 19-20).

How does a Christian coach balance the responsibility to share his faith with the responsibility to obey the law?  What does a Christian coach do when one of his players comes to him or her for counsel, and the answer to the player’s problem is clearly set forth in the Bible? Does it matter where the coach counsel the player, e.g., off campus or on campus?






     [1] Sports Law by Adam Epstein, Delmar Leaning (2003). 

[2]  The Lemon test of constitutionality providing that an act of government must

  • be primarily secular in purpose,
  • neither advance nor inhibit religion, and
  • avoid excessive entanglement with religion.

[3] The Endorsement test considers whether the government intends to communicate, and whether an imaginary “reasonable observer” would receive, a message of “endorsement” of a particular religion and/or an act of disapproval toward any other religion.

[4] The Coercion test examination of a religious practice determines whether pressure is applied to force or coerce individuals to participate. 

[5] Two versions of what is know as The Lord’s Pray occur in the New Testament, one in the Matthew 6:9 -13; and the other in Luke 11:2

[6] Not affiliated with or limited to a specific religious denomination. 

[7] Proselytizing is the act of attempting to convert people to another opinion and, particularly, another religion. 

[8] Adler v. Duval County Sch. Bd., 851 F.Supp. 446 (M.D.Fla.1994). 

[9] 206 F.3d 1070 (11th Cir. 2000) (en banc) (“Adler II”), vacated, 531 U.S. 801 (2002), reinstated, 250 F.3d 1330 (11th Cir. 2001) (“Adler III”). 

[10] A discretionary writ (order) issued, usually by a supreme court, telling a lower court that the case will be reviewed by the higher court. 

[11] Sports Law by Adam Epstein, Delmar Leaning (2003). 

[12] Sports Law by Adam Epstein, Delmar Leaning (2003).

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

Inside Religion and Sports (Constitutional and Biblical Issues)