“Bow your heads please and pray with me if you’d like.”
That’s how Pete Smith did it for nearly 30 years, before every single game, as a varsity basketball coach at Carmel, Noblesville, Manchester and Penn high schools.
Before games and after games, he asked players to join him in a prayer that he led, that he initiated — if they’d like.
“Never did I ever hear one peep from a parent or administrator about forcing beliefs on student athletes,” said Smith. “Did I ever notice guys not bowing their heads? Yes. And I never questioned why. It’s (their) choice, and they knew I understood that. Those that didn’t pray with me knew I was certainly not going to hold that against them when it came to game decisions and playing time.”
If Smith coached at a public school today, the American Humanist Association might be contacting him. The Washington, D.C.-based group is fighting schools nationwide that have coach-led prayers in athletics, citing such prayer as a violation of the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that school-initiated-prayer in public schools is unconstitutional.
The issue hit Indiana this week when Morristown Elementary School girls basketball coach Scott Spahr was put on notice by the AHA that the prayer circle he stood in with his fifth- and sixth-grade players had to stop or legal action could be taken.
After leaders at his school district, Shelby Eastern Schools, received a letter from AHA, they approached Spahr, who agreed to step away from the circle and let the students lead the prayer themselves.
“I think it’s really, really sad,” said Smith, who now coaches at Guerin Catholic, a private high school in Noblesville where prayer is expected. “My gosh, if a student didn’t want to bow their head or participate, then I’m sure they wouldn’t.”
The AHA says that’s far from the case, that a coach-led prayer not only violates the part of the First Amendment that mandates separation of church and state, but discriminates against those in the religious minority — and could easily lead to a coach showing favor to the kids who pray.
“If there is a Hindu student or a Jewish student or atheist student and everyone else on the team, including the coach, is gathering for a Christian prayer, that certainly excludes that minority,” said David Niose, legal director with AHA. “And that’s unfair.”
Shelby Eastern superintendent Robert Evans said Spahr was in a “gray area” of the law.
“We just need to make sure this prayer is not part of being on the team,” Evans said. “We’re told the coach being there makes it look like it’s something the players should do.”
And that’s not allowed.
The Star reached out to dozens of coaches throughout Indiana from youth recreation leagues to middle schools to high schools; most declined to talk about the issue.
The coaches who did weigh in all said they believe a coach praying with a team is just fine. But few would say whether they participated in prayer with players.
All said their players have prayed at one time or another.
“The key has always been that it was student-led,” said Troy Akers, a former football and girls track coach at Warsaw High, and now the school’s principal. “I believe that it’s part of the fiber where we get it right across most school districts in our state.”
Players praying has been a common practice on teams Akers has coached “and those who don’t have this belief or conviction are never made to feel uncomfortable should they decide not to participate,” he said.
Another coach, Andrew Williams, said that he believes it’s good for teams to pray, but that he hasn’t promoted team prayer.
“The main reason that I haven’t suggested team prayer is due to the politically correct, hot-button issue and not wanting to risk any trouble with parents or our school corporation,” said Williams, the 8th-grade boys basketball and baseball coach at Mt. Vernon Middle School.
The atmosphere was far different two decades ago, Williams said, when he was playing sports at Eastern Hancock Schools. He learned the “Lord’s Prayer” from his coaches, who led the team in prayer.
With the issue in the news this week, Williams decided to discuss it with his basketball team. All the players said they want to pray, even one boy who was unfamiliar with prayer or religion. Williams told the team he wouldn’t be involved, that one of them would need to lead it.
The boy who was unfamiliar with prayer asked: “Will it help us win?”
Which is a good question. Why do teams pray before games? For victory, for safety?
Zionsville High School basketball coach Shaun Busick said he thinks prayer calms and relaxes some players. He said most teams’ prayers likely focus on good sportsmanship, health and safety.
“If an individual or team desires to say a prayer before a game, he, she or they should have the right to do so,” said Busick, as long as they realize its purpose. “I really don’t think the good Lord is concerned with the outcome of the game as much as he is our attitude and our safety.”
Chad Masters said prayer “hammers home that there are bigger, more important things in life than athletics.”
Time and time again, he’s watched his football players kneel. He’s seen his wrestlers huddle and raise their voices in unison: “Our heavenly Father…”
Masters, the wrestling coach and defensive line coach for the football team at Mt. Vernon High School, is adamant that athletes praying is a good thing. He’s also adamant that encouragement from the coach isn’t necessarily wrong, as long as the students are choosing to pray on their own.
“Coaches are supposed to, in my opinion, try and make better people out of their athletes first and foremost,” Masters said. “Praying together, a family (and) community type involvement and pride are all things that can help develop young adults. If the athletes choose to pray we should let them.”
Team prayer hasn’t made its way into the rule books of the Indiana High School Athletic Association. There is no written ban on coaches praying with their teams.
The organization’s only rule along similar lines states: “There shall be no oral prayers delivered over the public address system or initiated by the host school, at the IHSAA tournament events.”
IHSAA soccer referee Jeff Kestner says he’s seen plenty of teams praying before games start.
“Personally (I) didn’t think anything of it because it would not have bothered me,” he said.
But he fears he may one day have to think about it should the IHSAA become involved and, in turn, give referees the job of regulating praying coaches.
“I wonder if someday this topic will come under our jurisdiction,” he said. “I sure hope not.”
Follow Star sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow.