Weekends in the Deep South are anchored by two long-cherished traditions – church on Sunday and football on Friday. And it’s no surprise that in many Southern cities and towns football and faith go hand-in-hand.
That is certainly the case in Southaven, Miss. where football season generates a revival-like fervor – where traditions are treasured.
For decades, before the first pigskin was passed, before the glee club sang of the “rocket’s red glare,” the crowd would be summoned to their feet. Hats were removed. Heads were bowed. And for just a moment – a hush fell over the stadium as a student delivered an invocation.
But over the past few years the intersection of the Gospel and gridiron has erupted into a storm of controversy. Christians across the Southern states have come under a fierce and relentless attack from outsiders hell-bent on banishing prayer from high school sports.
And so it was on last Friday night when the Desoto Central Jaguars opened their football season they did so without a student-led prayer. The tradition was banished after the school system was threatened with a lawsuit.
School districts across the state of Mississippi received the letter – written by the Freedom From Religion Foundation – a Wisconsin-based group whose purpose is to “protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.”
“You shouldn’t have to pray in order to enjoy your high school football game,” said Annie Lauire Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF.
Gaylor told Fox News the group sent similar letters to school districts in Tennessee, Louisiana and Alabama. But the Magnolia state, she said, has been most egregious.
“We were getting so many complaints out of Mississippi about illegal prayer at sporting events,” she said. “We wanted to reiterate the law – which is very clear – that you do not have prayer and devotionals in schools – including at athletic events.”
But many Christians across the state are distressed over the ban on prayers – and some say the tactics used by the FFRF to eliminate prayers have been disturbing.
“The idea of threatening our schools leaders with litigation if they practice prayer – it’s a bit disturbing,” said Jim Burnett, pastor of Willow Pointe Church in Hattiesburg. “I think these kinds of times have a refining effect on the church. It’s time for the Christian community to stand up and speak out in a godly way.”
Carmen Kyle stood up.
She’s lived in Desoto County for more than 20 years. She has a 16-year-old who is a junior at Desoto Central High School and another child who is a seventh grader. She was part of a grassroots effort to save the high school football prayer.
Thousands of people joined a Facebook group called DesotoCounty4Prayer. Churches across north Mississippi rallied. T-shirts were made. But in the end – their efforts failed.
And on Friday night Kyle was in the bleachers with her family – watching the football game – without a prayer.
“It makes me sad for generations to come,” she told Fox News. “There’s no expression of a belief system any longer.”
On the way home from the game, Kyle’s 16-year-old son brought up the absence of prayer.
“He said, ‘that just makes me sad,” she recounted. “I said this is a perfect example – at 16-years-old where you are experiencing Christian persecution.”
“I hate it for generations to come that they won’t be able to express – that’s what prayer is,” she said. “You’re praying that God will protect those athletes, that God will surround that field with protection. You don’t have that anymore.”
It’s a tradition that’s not lost on Congressman Alan Nunnellee. The Republican represents Mississippi’s first congressional district.
“Prayer is a part of our culture in Mississippi,” he told Fox News. “We turn to prayer in times of tragedy, but it’s important for schools and extracurricular activities to prepare students to deal with the good times of life and the bad times of life. And the way we do that in Mississippi is through prayer.”
Nunellee said “prayer in public settings is part of our culture not just in Mississippi but in America.”
Nevertheless, said Gaylor, it is against the law.
“The secular constitution of the United States is part of the cultural heritage of Mississippi and is a longtime custom,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a longtime custom to violate the law. You have to stop violating it. In fact, that makes it more egregious.”
Gaylor said the fact is that many students and parents are offended by the prayers, both religious and non-religious.
“They should not have to forfeit playing on a football team or forfeit attending their football game at school because they are not religious or because they are not Christian,” she said.
But now many Christians across the southern states said they feel like second-class citizens – and in some communities there are small acts of defiance.
At Purvis High School in Hattiesburg cheerleaders passed out copies of the Lord’s Prayer – so football fans could read it during a moment of silence.
“We’re not allowed to pray as a school, so we’re doing it on our own,” student Hallie Litolff told the Hattiesburg American.
Pastor Burnett cautioned Christians on how they respond to the attacks.
“Be led by God,” he said. “We have to be careful.”
“Maybe God is asking us if we’ve had enough yet,” he wondered. “The country is turning against what we believe the Bible teaches.”