Birdville school district defends prayers on PA system before football games

Students in the Birdville school district have been saying prayers over the public address system before football games despite a Supreme Court ruling that the practice is unconstitutional.

At Richland's football game against Keller Central on Friday, a student said a prayer from the field just before the national anthem. A disclaimer on the video board said the student was selected on "neutral criteria" and that her comments were a "private expression" and did not reflect the "endorsement" of the district.

The district says the students are speaking under a state law that requires school districts to establish a "limited public forum," giving students the right to speak publicly before all school events. Juniors and seniors interested in speaking are selected at random, Birdville schools spokesman Mark Thomas said.

"If the students choose to do a prayer, they can," Thomas said. "They can do a welcome. ... It's a freedom-of-speech issue that was addressed in legislation."

Birdville school board president Ralph Kunkel said he had received two e-mails this year from parents expressing concern about the prayers.

"They asked, 'Is that part of what we're supposed to be doing?'" Kunkel said. "I responded by showing them a copy of our policy, and we can't edit what the students say.

"During graduation ceremonies, we've had the valedictorian and salutatorian give speeches, where three or four times, they mention Allah. We can't edit that, just as if they mention Jesus and God."

It was unclear how many times Birdville students have prayed publicly at school functions.

The 2000 ruling

In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a Texas case that student-led, student-initiated prayer at public high school football games violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from engaging in activity that favors, supports, endorses or advances religion.

In response, the Texas Legislature passed the Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act in 2007 to address religious expression in public schools. It requires school districts to establish "a limited public forum" for student speakers at school events.

In Fort Worth, no student has taken advantage of the policy, said spokesman Clint Bond. Arlington does not have a policy and does not allow prayers before games. Keller officials adopted a policy but have not offered students the opportunity to speak at sporting events. Mansfield has not heard of any pregame prayer issues by students this year, spokesman Richie Escovedo said.

The Texas Association of School Boards predicted a potential problem with the policy in its "Texas Administrator Guide."

After all, the majority of students at a particular school are likely to be of a similar religious background. Therefore, even if the drawing is random, there is a high likelihood that someone of the religious majority would be selected, University of Houston law professor Peter Linzer said.

Also, religious minorities might feel intimidated or fear potential backlash to express their beliefs in the presence of the religious majority, he said.

TASB alluded to these problems in its guide, saying "we are concerned that a local policy may be too vague to facilitate consistent implementation."

The ACLU weighs in

The American Civil Liberties Union questioned the wisdom of what the Birdville district was doing.

"Schools try to get around the Supreme Court ruling instead of paying attention to instruction and things they should be focused on," said Rebecca Robertson of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

"We don't need to be doing it at school. We don't want a taxpayer-funded school to have a prayer over the loud speaker, whether it's Christian or Muslim or Jewish, because then it looks like the school has endorsed it."

Linzer doesn't know why a school district such as Birdville would take its lead from Texas Legislature instead of the Supreme Court.

"Texas Legislature is not the final authority on the Constitution, to say the least," Linzer said. "I give that little weight. As far as I'm concerned, I give it weight in the other direction. It's almost like they're encouraging it. They're saying it is neutrality, but I would like to see a student say an atheist prayer or quote something from the Koran.

"In most of these cases, everybody belongs to the same church and that always bothers me a lot. If somebody wanted to do the Koran, they'd have a tough time and that person would probably be subjected to a great deal of abuse and not do it.

"But I see the argument the other way, too. It's a close question and it's hard to draw that line."

In October, a state district judge ruled that cheerleaders at Kountze High School can display banners emblazoned with Bible verses at football games pending the outcome of a lawsuit on the issue.

School officials had barred the cheerleaders from displaying banners with religious messages after the Freedom From Religion Foundation complained. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has argued that the Texas Education Code states that schools must respect the rights of students to express their religious beliefs. The case is set for trial June 24.

Mike Johnson, senior counsel at Liberty Institute in Plano, who represented the cheerleaders, believes the state law and the Birdville school district's policy is constitutional.

"Not only has the school not edited what the student has said, they go a step further by giving a disclaimer," Johnson said. "That's their get-out-of-jail-free card. They leave nothing to the imagination that they are facilitating it or endorsing it."

Staff writers Jessamy Brown, Shirley Jinkins, Sandra Engelland and Patrick Walker contributed to this report.

Drew Davison, (817) 390-7760

Twitter: @drewdavison