As a pastor and coach, I let my athletes pray if they want – and I support those who don’t.
I thought a lot about the role prayer should play in high school sports.
I have been a pastor for 13 years. Currently, I serve at the Christian Church of Philadelphia, located in Chestnut Hill. Last year, I started coaching football at Bensalem High School. As a seminarian at Palmer Theological Seminary, I volunteered with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, where we helped lead and train Christian athletes through their various seasons.
So I have some thoughts on the recent Supreme Court ruling regarding the role of prayer in sport.
In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court sided with Joseph Kennedy, a former football coach from Bremerton, Wash., who wanted to pray at the 50-yard line after every game and invited other players to join him. The school district where he worked objected, saying they didn’t want the school to appear to endorse any particular religion. It’s understandable: the goal of public education is to foster a safe and inclusive environment for all who attend and participate.
That being said, of course I think it should be legal for the coach to be able to pray before or after the game. It is a slippery slope that we risk saying to someone who cannot pray, whether as a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, etc. The right to practice our religious beliefs is one of the great aspects of our nation. . However, just because we have the right to do something doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be aware of the rights of others.
I believe in the God of the Christian Bible. But as the head football coach of Bensalem High, I chose to be guided by Matthew 6:6: “But when you pray, go to your room, close the door, and pray to your Father, who is invisible. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Last season a group of players asked if we as a team could pray before games. I accepted the request but was clear and adamant that this prayer time was purely optional, and insisted that it take place before the game, and in the dressing room. Children who choose to pray go to a separate room, but I don’t go with them. As a head coach, I stay with the kids who don’t want to pray to a Christian god. I always want everyone on the team to feel supported, both as players and as young men.
Yes, the children know that I am a pastor. Children know what I believe. But when I put this whistle around my neck, we all need to be on the same page, working collectively as a unit to achieve our goals. I want children who choose not to pray to the God of the Bible to know that we respect their beliefs. While some children choose to pray to a Christian god, I urge others that they may pray to a different god, or offer a Jewish prayer, or a Muslim prayer, or no prayer at all. That suits me perfectly. We can sit in silence or talk – whatever they want.
“I want children who choose not to pray to the God of the Bible to know that we respect their beliefs.”
So while I support the Supreme Court’s decision and have created a space for Christian prayer for my team, I never want any player to feel pressured to participate, or feel like not having space to pray to a different god, if they choose. I was disturbed to learn that some of Kennedy’s players said they felt pressured to participate and feared they wouldn’t get as much playing time if they didn’t.
In my opinion, it is extremely inappropriate for me to pressure my players to believe what I believe or pray as I pray.
I have nothing against prayer in high school sports. But I believe it should be done in private, off the field, promoting the mutual respect that a public school demands. While I support Coach Joseph Kennedy’s decision to offer a prayer for his students after a game, footage shows a large number of players, gathered in front of the crowd at the 50-yard line, all praying to a Christian god. This, to me, risks alienating others in a public institution.
For me, as a pastor and a Christian, prayer is a vital aspect of my life. As a public school football coach, I believe it is important that it is practiced with sensitivity and understanding of others.
The Rev. Alexander G. Houston is the pastor of the Christian Church of Philadelphia and the football coach of Bensalem High School.
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