Alaska’s wrestling tournament for small schools will be held next month — but it won’t be at the private Anchorage Christian Schools, the host for the past seven years. A complaint about the tournament’s introductory prayer led to a request to stop the practice, and the school refused.
The anonymous complaint came after last year’s event. It prompted the national group Americans United for Separation of Church and State to complain to the Alaska School Activities Association that it was giving the state’s sanction to the prayer.
“State athletic associations are government actors,” Americans United attorney Ian Smith tells the Alaska Dispatch News. “As government actors, when they host an event they can’t have a prayer.”
In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public schools could not start their football games with a student-led prayer, on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment and could lead to coercion and discrimination on the basis of religion.
After the Alaska school association’s lawyers said that the prayer complaint has merit, the group asked Anchorage Baptist Temple, which runs the school, to forgo the prayer. But Tom Cobaugh, the Baptist school’s administrator, says it was “a show stopper for us.”
He tells the Dispatch News that a prayer was a standard part of the two-day tournament.
“We would pray at semifinals or finals,” Cobaugh said. “We do the Pledge of Allegiance, the flag is displayed, we sing the national anthem, say a prayer and then we wrestle.”
Saying the prayer wasn’t evangelistic or meant to influence anyone at the tournament, Cobaugh said, “It was a basic prayer for protection of the student athletes, that all would compete well, have good sportsmanship. It was a very generic prayer, if I can use that word. It was unoffensive.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has issued several rulings on the intersections between prayer and official or government-sponsored events.
A 1983 ruling allowed legislatures to open their sessions with a prayer — “as long as there is no attempt to proselytize or disparage any faith, and as long as the process for selecting the prayer-giver is not discriminatory,” as NPR’s Nina Totenberg reported last year, when a similar case arose.