The Crane High School girls basketball players practice and win together.
They also pray together, publicly, before every game.
Moments before the start of the championship game of the 2015 Stephanie Phillips Classic at Kickapoo High School, players from three-time defending state champion Crane and host Kickapoo met at midcourt.
The gymnasium fell into silence as the players formed a circle and Crane senior captain Emma Lander prayed aloud.
“We just want to keep in mind what is most important, and for us giving God the glory is what is most important. That’s why we play, that’s what our main purpose in life is,” Lander said.
A public school basketball team prays before every home and away game. Last March, they prayed together with the Skyline girls basketball team in the middle of Mizzou Arena at Columbia before the Class 2 state championship game.
The public display of prayer is protected, in part, by federal law and in part by a state law passed in 2014.
Part of House Bill 1303 states that, “Students in public schools may pray or engage in religious activities or religious expression before, during and after the school day in the same manner and to the same extent that students may engage in nonreligious activities or expression.”
Rep. Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, called House Bill 1303 his “signature bill” of the 2014 session. Some state lawmakers questioned if the bill protected liberties already protected by the Bill of Rights, but the bill passed the House and Senate and was signed into law.
The Crane players started their pregame prayer tradition last season. Crane’s volleyball team also prays with its opponents before games. Opposing teams receive an invitation at pregame captains meetings.
“Surprisingly, no one has ever said ‘no’ when we asked them,” Lander said.
Coach Jeremy Mullins looks on from a chair on the Crane bench during the prayer meetings.
“I stay on the bench,” Mullins said. “With state laws being what they are, I can’t initiate or participate with the girls on the floor.”
A policy enacted by the Crane R-III Board of Education keeps teachers or coaches from taking part in prayers with students.
The policy is backed by state law. It reads, “To the extent required by law, district employees or officials shall not lead attendees of a district-sponsored event in prayer or any other religious ritual, nor shall they direct, whether implicitly or explicitly, a student to lead attendees in a prayer or any other religious ritual. However, this policy shall not be used to deny any student, employee or district official any personal legal right of expression.”
Legally, the players from two basketball teams can have a pregame prayer at midcourt, provided their coaches or other school employees are not involved. The Crane R-III Board of Education adopted the policy in 2005 and last revised it in November of last year.
While some fans unfamiliar with the Pirates wonder about the team’s pregame prayer, Lander and Mullins both denied catching any flak for praying in public.
“I haven’t experience anything negative with it. Hopefully we won’t,” Mullins said.
Crane (7-0) plays its next game Thursday at Morrisville and hosts Rogersville Friday. The Pirates will be part of the Pink and White Lady Classic Dec. 28-31 at Drury University in Springfield.