Beginning with Friday night’s home game against Wetumpka, Opelika will no longer have a public pregame prayer, instead opting for a pregame moment of silence.
The decision was announced Monday in reaction to a letter received Sept. 3 by Opelika City Schools superintendent Mark Neighbors. The letter was from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
In the letter, the foundation states that its purposes are “to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.”
Christopher Line, an attorney and the author of the letter, explained that the organization received a report from the parent of an Opelika student complaining about a public Christian prayer delivered over the loudspeaker at Bulldog Stadium prior to the Bulldogs’ game with Callaway on Aug. 22.
“We receive more than 5,000 complaints every year from all across the country,” Line said in an interview with the Opelika-Auburn News. “When we receive a complaint, we will look into it and then we will write to the school district telling them what our complainant told us and what the law says about whatever issue the complainant brought up.”
He notes that the complainant felt “alienated because of this prayer and noted that it made them want to move their children out of the district.”
The letter goes on to cite several U.S. Supreme Court decisions which rule that is illegal for a public school to sponsor religious messages at school-sponsored athletic events.
The complaint also raised concern over Bulldog coaches leading the team in prayer during games and practices. The foundation cites several Supreme Court decisions that have found it unconstitutional for a public school employee to lead or be a part of a prayer circle — even if the employee remains silent.
“Students have the right to pray in schools, but teachers or coaches can’t be leading or organizing the prayer, or participating in that prayer,” Line said.
The Opelika-Auburn News received a response from the Opelika City Schools on Monday. The email from schools spokeswoman Becky Brown stated that “Opelika High School will have a moment of silence prior to the start of the game,” in the place of a prayer.
Neighbors declined to provide any further comment.
Line says that a moment of silence is a compromise that his organization supports.
“If they are just having a moment of silence and then individual participants choose to pray either to themselves or out loud, that is obviously their choice,” Line said. “The thing that we are complaining about is school sponsorship of religion.
"The school district can’t be hosting or encouraging people to pray. If they give a moment of silence where some people can do what they want and some people can pray, and it is all individual choice, then that is completely fine.
“It is just that the school district can’t be leading prayer or giving someone a microphone to pray or facilitating prayer. I think that a moment of silence is typically a good compromise. … Let it be their choice rather than something being pushed on them by the school district.”
The issue of prayer at school events is one that the foundation sees more with southern states like Alabama than the rest of the country according to Line. He says the Freedom From Religion Foundation has been happy with the progress states such as Alabama have made in recent years of being more inclusive.
“It does seem more common in the South,” Line said. “It was a pretty wide-spread practice in Alabama until the last couple years. We’ve done a pretty good job of informing school districts in Alabama of the illegality of this practice.
"I know over the last couple years, most school districts in Alabama have ceased having prayer over the loudspeaker. I think there are just a couple that are still doing it that maybe we haven’t gotten through to yet or don’t quite understand the law yet.”
In 2017, Smiths Station’s superintendent at the time, Sherry Paysinger, received a similar letter written by Line on behalf of the foundation about public prayer at school events.
“My understanding is that they are no longer praying at football games, so we consider that issue resolved,” Line said.
Unless the foundation receives any further complaints, Line says it consider the matter with Opelika City Schools resolved.
“This is sort of the ideal scenario that we have,” Line said. “Obviously, the ideal scenario is that no one was violating the law at all, but a parent in the stands and felt discriminated against with this prayer going on at their public school wrote in to us.
"We let the school know what was going on and now the school, after receiving our letter, is taking the correct action to ensure that it is not imposing religion on its parents or students anymore.
“At the end of the day, the school is not violating the law anymore, this parent is not going to have to go to these games and have religion pushed on them. I think it is kind of a win for everyone. It is kind of the ideal outcome to this sort of situation.”