The omission of prayer at the last Center Roughrider football game against the Jasper Bulldogs at Roughrider stadium has many in the community questioning the decision. However, through school policy, prayer will still continue before the games.
Many fans who head to Roughrider Stadium on Friday nights have become quite familiar with hearing Chris Mayfield lead the pregame prayer.
However, those in attendance for the game between the Center Roughriders and the Jasper Bulldogs on Friday, Nov. 9, 2012 heard the national anthem, observed a moment of silence and saw kickoff but did not hear the prayer they’ve been accustomed to hearing.
“After the National Anthem, my phone started blowing up,” Mayfield said. “I had texts that said things like, ‘No prayer? What’s going on?’”
The Wednesday before that game, Mayfield was asked by Center ISD Superintendent James Hockenberry not to lead the traditional prayer.
“There are two reasons – one, our school district attorney gave us legal advice and said ‘Stop immediately,’ and the other thing is when you know a law is being broken, whether you agree with that law or not, you have to abide by the law, you just have to,” Hockenberry said. “So with that information, I made the decision right then and there.”
Mayfield is not an employee of the school district and many would argue praying before the games is covered by the First Amendment right Free Speech.
“It’s not like it’s doing any harm,” Mayfield said. “I pray for a good clean game and for safety for both teams and for safe travels for everyone in attendance.”
Bob Reeves, a former employee of CISD for 13 years said he didn't see an issue with the prayer.
"I do not believe that at any time, the Center ISD (was) in danger of huge fines or increased taxes to pay for this in the event of a legal challenge," Reeves said. " Should the school not want to respond and fight a challenge, a simple stop order would be followed. Many people thought we should have been searching for ways to continue to pray at football games and not looking for reasons to stop it."
Hockenberry agrees, but says the district will do everything in its power to not break any laws and he says the law prohibits adults from using the public address system to lead a prayer.
“There was a case, I believe it was in 2000 but I may be a little sketchy, that triggered all this, the topic of prayer over the public address system at football games,” Hockenberry said. “It was Santa Fe vs Doe and I’ve been studying it for the last few weeks because it was brought to my attention. Someone told me, ‘Hey, you might want to watch on how y’all are bringing that prayer.’ It was brought to my attention and so when I realized it and I checked with our school attorney and told ‘them this is what’s going on, this is how it’s happening,’ they told me to stop it immediately.”
Because the pregame prayer has been done at every home game for Center this year, many people asked themselves “Why now?”.
“That’s a really good question,” Hockenberry said. “It’s something that I processed through my mind. I asked myself, ‘Do I let it go for one game or do I do what I’ve been asked to do and fix it right there and abide by the law?’ I went through that in my head and it came down to when I know we’re doing something wrong, I had to step in and make it right.”
Mayfield and Hockenberry both said they’re not at odds with each other. In fact, they each say they’re working on a solution and believe they may have found one.
“We’re working through several things to make this happen,” Hockenberry said. “This is a very passionate topic and understandably so. Listen, I completely understand people’s feelings. There are some details to be worked out but we’re going to find a way to where we can provide that opportunity. Adults can’t lead it and it can’t be a representative of the school district. What we’re finding out is it will be a student-led expression but there are going to have to be some things put in place to make sure we do the process correctly, but yes we have a solution and needless to say, we’re pretty pleased.
“They’ll have three minutes,” Hockenberry continued. “You can’t call it a student-led prayer but it’s a student expression where they can say whatever they want. That’s the way I understand. The kids are going to pray but we can’t call it that. We’re going to have to do a disclaimer. We’re going to have to do a few little things that law requires us to do but then the student will have up to three minutes to kind of say what they want. Obviously they can’t use obscene language and they can defame.
As a Christian, Mayfield said he wishes the school would do away with the rule but is pleased they found an answer.
“I’m glad we were able to get it resolved,” Mayfield said. “We’re going to be able to pray before football games and do it legally and that makes me happy. I truly wish the school board would forget about the law because it’s five home games, at the most 1-3 minutes so that’s a max of 15 minutes per year. Like I said though, we’re glad they found resolution and we’re going to do our best to make it positive.”
The Center ISD School Board will be having a regular meeting on Thursday, Nov. 15 to discuss the issue. It is the third item on the agenda as “Discussion of FNA (local).”
“We have come up with a resolution to this situation, and it’s in a local policy that’s already in place that we are going to implement, that creates a public forum for a student to do a welcome to the football game, and other non graduation events,” said Stephen Shires, Center ISD School Board member. “What it entails is, when the student gives the welcome, the law is in the education code, as long as the student gives an expression of beliefs, that’s within the First Amendment, being that they can’t use obscenities, they can’t defame anybody, they can’t yell ‘fire.’ As long as they operate within those confines the school district cannot regulate their speech. That First Amendment protection extends to religious speech, so if a student chooses to get up there and pray, the school district cannot prohibit that.”
Shires says that the policy was put into place by the state legislature, by the state board, and through the local association to directly deal with the Santa Fe vs. Doe case.
“It’s very important for the folks of Shelby County to realize that I think every member of this board and our Superintendent are all committed Christians. Jim Sawyer and I are on the committee of the Methodist Church, Dr. Golden is a Deacon at the Baptist Church, we’ve got a Sunday school teacher, Ortega Cartwright - as active as we all are, he probably is more active than all of us combined in his church.”
The fact the decision had not gone before the board was a concern to Reeves and others.
"I was concerned that the Board was not informed nor did they have any input into this decision that was made to stop this before the game Friday night, the last home game of this season," Reeves said.
Dr. Golden was also concurred with Shires that all members of the board are Christians, committed to doing the right thing.
“All eight people who, including the Superintendent, are born again Christians. So we are all as committed to prayer in schools as anybody,” said Dr. Dixon Golden, Center ISD School Board President.
“We don’t have the luxury of the populace to be able to just say, ‘This is our personal opinion, and this is what should happen,’ because we have a counter veiling obligation as school board members. Because we are the trustees, and as important as this issue is to us, as much as we would like to tell the ACLU to come on down and let’s get it on, we have a duty to make sure that we expend our limited resources wisely. Because we have a duty to the students of this community, to the taxpayers of this community that what we do– how we use our resources is in the most wise and efficient way,” said Shires. “Having prayer and God in our school is important to us, but the fact of the matter is the Supreme Court of the United State in Santa Fe vs. Doe clearly said that the school allowing prayer, as opposed to an expression of a student is illegal.”
“Our Superintendent, on short notice, had to make a decision on what to do. It was a difficult decision, one that we have conflicting interests. He made the best decision he could at the time. He sought input from Dr. Golden he sought input from our school attorney, and he made a decision that he thought was in the best interest of the school district,” said Shires.
Dr. Hockenberry sought the direction of the school board through Dr. Golden, and through the school district’s attorney.
“A decision like this, Dr. Hockenberry does not make unilateral decisions. The board members are all very busy. I was actually in Austin on a state board, he conveyed to me what was going on with Kountze, and with Jasper being in close proximity. By the way the board in Kountze, the administrators got sued and board members individually got sued in that case. The Kountze case is different from this case. My advise to him was to get a legal opinion, which he did, and if the legal opinion says we can pray, keep praying,” said Dr. Golden. “Just like Stephen said, the Santa Fe case is clear.”
Jim Sawyer, Center ISD School Board member, said that the school has had a moment of silence for years, and has followed the proper procedure, but that more recently the public announcer began saying a prayer at the beginning of the games. They now plan to go back to the former procedure.
“What’s happened is, historically we have had a moment of silence before our athletic events, as far as I know until either this year or last year. We had followed the moment of silence regimen until either this year, or last year I’m not sure when it started. And then there started to be prayer by our public address announcer at the games,” said Jim Sawyer, Center ISD School Board member. “We have thought about it some, but not to the point of taking action. What prompted the Superintendent to think about it more this week is the fact it has been going on all year, we have been thinking about it, but he thought with the Kountze situation there could be some repercussions. And therefore talked to the board through the president, and also talked to the attorney and came to the decision that we need to change course and go back to the proper way of doing it.”