No Pray, No Play

Friday, August 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Kody Shed has a vision of the way he believes high school football games in Texas should begin:

As the last echoes of "The Star-Spangled Banner" fade, one person in the stands, then a dozen people, then a thousand people start to recite Christianity's best-known prayer:

Our Father, who art in heaven ...

And by the final "amen," the bleachers are solid with praying people.

Mr. Shed, 27, of Temple, has done more than dream. He's created an organization called No Pray, No Play, cranked up a Web site and spent the past two months crisscrossing Texas with his T-shirts and his message. His goal is to set up a network of religious and lay leaders committed to conducting voluntary pregame prayers.

"We want this movement to be broad enough and well-known enough that it becomes the right thing and the normal thing to do," Mr. Shed said. "We're not breaking the law, and we're not protesting."

No Pray, No Play may not be a protest, but it is one of several organized responses to the U.S. Supreme Court decision issued in June that declared school-run prayer before high school games unconstitutional.

Apparently they've formed unbeknownst to one another. Mostly across the South, the groups all have the same goal: to encourage people to repeat the Lord's Prayer after the national anthem at high school football games.

A North Carolina-based group called "We Still Pray" also has a Web site. Last week, it hosted a rally that filled a stadium in Asheville and backed up traffic for miles. The event included "The Star-Spangled Banner," followed by a mass recitation of the Lord's Prayer.

"One of the purposes of the rally was a dress rehearsal for football season," which started Friday, said Wendell Runion, head of International Baptist Outreach Missions and the owner of a local Christian radio station.

Another pro-prayer group, one without a fancy slogan, has formed in Mississippi. It's being promoted on a syndicated radio talk show, Listen to the Eagle, that plays on Mondays in Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas. The show is normally devoted to hunting and fishing issues, but host Paul Ott decided to add the prayer cause to his discussions.

Dozens of pastors, some in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, have pledged their support to No Pray, No Play, Mr. Shed said. He hopes to have representatives at as many as 100 games for the Friday season kickoff.

Some who have learned about the plan say it will be enthusiastically received.

"I think that people who know the Lord's Prayer, when they hear it, will start screaming and yelling," said Russ Smith, 18, who graduated from Richland High School in North Richland Hills in May.

There is no question that his idea has already become the best-known and best-organized response in Texas to the Supreme Court ruling.

When the court struck down a system used in Santa Fe, Texas, for selecting a student to offer a prayer before football games, the ruling was condemned by some conservative Christians. Mr. Shed decided the court was right.

"It's not the government's job to promote religion," said Mr. Shed, a lay worship leader at the nondenominational Cornerstone Christian Fellowship church in Temple. "It's the church's job to promote religion."

His method, as explained on the No Pray, No Play Web site: "Prayer in the stands, by the fans. It's legal. It's Constitutional. It's right."

Whether Mr. Shed has as much support as he says will be clear next Friday night. He's only just started contacting pastors in Santa Fe, south of Houston, for instance. He talked to Joe Cota, minister for youth and music at Santa Fe Christian Church, on Tuesday.

Local pastors hadn't planned anything specific for the start of football, Mr. Cota said.

"I think people had come to a resolution that it's a done deal, at least for this ruling. We were just going to move forward and abide by the rules until God shows us something different," he said. Mr. Shed's phone call "may be God showing us that something."

Mr. Shed will spend much of next week in Houston. He hopes to attract thousands of Christians from across the state to pray at Santa Fe High School's first game.

But some Christians and non-Christians wonder whether Mr. Shed's plan is a good way to promote Christianity or serve God.

"So much of the effort here is just a way for people to say religion is important in life and in the public sphere. But when push comes to shove, this is not the way to do it," said the Rev. Tom Plumbley, pastor of Midway Hills Christian Church in Dallas and vice president of the North Texas chapter of Americans for the Separation of Church and State. "It makes the whole exercise very cheap."

Rabbi Seth Stander of Temple Rodef Sholom in Waco is concerned about what may happen to those who sit silently while others pray. "When you begin, in any public setting, to identify those who are in and those who are out, you are walking along a dangerous precedent," he said.

If No Pray is successful in promoting vocal prayer, it will marginalize non-Christians, said Mohammed Elmougy, regional president of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Or it will inspire others to do likewise, producing a cacophony of worship between the national anthem and the kickoff in Arabic, Hebrew, Hindi and other languages of faith found in America.

"I don't see this achieving anything," Mr. Elmougy said.

Mr. Shed and his supporters counter that they're only doing what the Bible commands, that they aren't forcing anyone to join them and that they're reclaiming a valuable, long-standing tradition that the court killed.

"It offers a sense of community, a sense of Christian bond beyond walls, beyond church houses," said the Rev. Mike Harkrider, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Temple.

Despite the pugnacious "No Play" slogan, Mr. Shed says he's not really suggesting that there be no football without prayer. And he insists that his group is dedicated to supporting only voluntary worship at the games.

But he acknowledges that "if you look at our mission statement, we're about more than praying before a football game."

The mission statement – and much of the other material on the organization's Web site – make it clear that this is an aggressive evangelical effort to win souls.

"Choose a team!" the Web site exhorts.

One side is led by "Team Owner Elohim Yhwh, King of Kings & Lord of lords."

The head coach is "Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World." The assistant coach is "Parakletos, 'The along side one' a.k.a. 'The Comforter.' " The other team is led by "Head Coach/Team Owner Satan a.k.a. Lucifer."

Behind the sports jargon is a serious message: "Read the stats carefully before choosing a team. The wrong choice could cost you your soul." The site defines anything but Christianity as a very wrong choice.

For several weeks, the site had a link labeled "Hate God?" that connected Web surfers to a "statement to non-Christians" that explains the No Pray, No Play interpretation of Christian beliefs and says that "a Christian acknowledging, honoring, or speaking to God in prayer does not threaten or impose on your religious beliefs or lack thereof."

Mr. Shed doesn't apologize for a hard line against those who do not accept Christianity.

"I believe the Bible teaches that you are either for God or against God," he said, referring to Matthew 12:30: "He who is not with me is against me [Jesus], and he who does not gather with me scatters."

Ray Flachmeier, executive director of the Greater Dallas Community of Churches, is among those who believes the No Pray approach goes over the line.

"It's impolite and, rather than giving a positive witness to a lot of folks, I think it will give a lot of people a negative impression," he said. "I think those of us in the majority have a special responsibility to respect the religious sensitivities of other people."

And besides, he said, didn't Jesus say critical things about showy, public prayer?

The Gospel of Matthew includes stern language about public worship. Shortly before the passage now called the Lord's Prayer, Jesus is quoted as saying: "Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men."

But that's a challenge Mr. Shed has prepared for. Jesus was condemning hypocritical public prayer, not the prayer itself, he said. The pope and Billy Graham regularly offer prayer before huge crowds without being challenged with Matthew 6, he said.

Others wonder about so much holy effort preceding an event that, after all, is basically boys knocking one another down.

"For me, it reduces matters of faith to something like doing the wave," said Rabbi David Stern of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas. "Theologically, I think it ends up cheapening the holy."

But supporters of No Pray say they're making a point about the holy, that God's role extends into all areas of life. "God is not something to be put into a box," said Melitza Rivera of Belton, who is working with Mr. Shed.

Mr. Shed was unwilling to name his group's board of directors or those who have contributed money or to say how much he has collected. He said there was some concern that they might be targeted by groups like Wiccans, atheists and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU was successful in its legal challenge to the Santa Fe prayers. The school district had allowed the students to elect one student to deliver a prayer before each game.

A six-member majority of the court ruled that "the District has failed to divorce itself from the invocations' religious content. The policy involves both perceived and actual endorsement of religion. ... [T]he District has established a governmental mechanism that turns the school into a forum for religious debate and empowers the student body majority to subject students of minority views to constitutionally improper messages."

But the ACLU in Texas has no problems with Mr. Shed's prayer plan, said Michael Linz, a Dallas lawyer and member of the board of the Texas ACLU affiliate. "If they want to picket or protest or pray or whatever they want to do, as long as they don't involve the government, more power to them, and the government shouldn't interfere with them," he said. "Everybody has a right to voice their beliefs. That is especially true of religious beliefs."

Likewise, the American Center for Law and Justice – among the ACLU's opponents in the Santa Fe case – agrees that No Pray, No Play is legal, said Kevin Theriot, the ACLJ's senior associate counsel.

Mark Briskman, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, was less certain that No Pray, No Play would pass constitutional muster. The prayers would hardly be spontaneous, would take place at school-owned facilities and would change the flow of the event by forcing everyone to wait for the prayer to end, he said.

"Why don't they go to a church before the game, say a prayer, then go to the football game?" he said.

The whole point is to demonstrate that prayer is important outside the church, Mr. Shed said.

"If you give God up," he said, "you let the devil in."

The AP contributed to this report.