From Friday Night Lights to Secular Fights
September 18, 2019
If there's one thing secularists despise more than one person praying, it's 7,000! That's what the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) got when it tried to shut down faith in Opelika, Alabama. Turns out, threatening prayer in this small town didn't lead to silence. It led to a revolution.
Football fields are for playing -- not praying. That was the message from the Wisconsin-based bullies at FFRF. But if they were hoping to convince the students and supporters of the Opelika High Bulldogs, they are barking up the wrong tree. The Alabama community isn't about to apologize for a 100-year tradition before games. In fact, if anyone's going to be sorry, it will probably be the anti-Christian radicals who picked the fight in the first place.
The story is a familiar one. A single person complains about a public expression of faith, and suddenly, everyone else has to surrender their rights. That was the foundation's logic when it fired off a letter to Opelika administrators demanding that the school end student-led prayers before kickoff. Sometimes, that strategy works. In small towns with even smaller budgets, districts will do anything they can to avoid a long, drawn-out legal battle. Superintendent Mark Neighbors, like others in that chair, tried to compromise. He told the players that instead of prayer, the team could have a moment of silence instead.
But last Friday, silence was the last thing on anyone's minds. With voices so loud they probably reached Wisconsin, thousands of fans, teachers, and students let the activists know they had no intentions of backing down. Together, the teenagers led the stadium in the Lord's Prayer -- a display of courage that youth pastor Steve Bass says he'll remember as long as he lives.
Like a lot of people in Opelika, he's proud of the community's deep Christian roots. In fact, it's such a part of the town's day-to-day life that nobody ever gave it a second thought until this month. Suddenly, he says, people started questioning the one thing that brings the town together. "And you know," he told listeners on "Washington Watch," "I just felt God speak in my heart that this is not okay -- that I need to take a stand." He called his students in and said, "Guys, they can threaten the coaches' jobs. They could threaten the teachers' job. They can threaten the administration. They cannot restrict your right as a student." He had the idea to use the Lord's prayer -- and encouraged them to spread the idea far and wide.
"This is what we preach all the time -- there's going to be a moment, where you either have to stand for your faith or cave in. It's like in Revelation, where it says, 'I wish you were hot or cold, but don't try to ride the fence. Don't try to sit in the middle.'" In a Wednesday worship service before Friday's game, Pastor Bass told his students, "This is one of those pinnacle moments in our history that you get the chance to be a part of.... You're not going to win the fight if you don't put up a fight."
By the time gameday rolled around, kids were waiting at the visitor team entrance, explaining what was going on. Cheerleaders were at Chick-fil-A, waving over opposing players and parents to let them in on the plan.
"We've retreated for a long time," Pastor Bass told me, "and we haven't gone on the offensive because our culture and society will call us out now. And we're so worried about offending that one person or group of people... Many people in our culture... talk about how God has been removed from schools and everything. Well, it didn't happen overnight. It was a series of concessions like this where we have tried to be graceful as Christians and make the decisions to benefit the other side. And before we know it, this is where we are."
In places like Valdosta, Georgia and Robertson County, Tennessee, where activists are trying to spook teams out of their First Amendment rights, the playbook is backfiring. When two high school students got baptized on the Springfield football field, coaches didn't care if that upset the forces of political correctness. They posted the picture on social media, and when browbeaters at FFRF came calling, they ignored them.
"We have not received a single phone call from anyone asking us about [these baptisms]," the director of schools said in a textbook response. "Zero. If we have concerned parents or community members, I would think they would need to contact the district office about it instead of turning to organizations that aren't even based in Tennessee."
If the Freedom from Religion Foundation wanted to make an impact in these cities, they did. Just not the one they were counting on. "The movement that started Friday night in our football stadium was probably more powerful," Pastor Bass told me, than all of the student-led prayers of the last 100 years. And certainly more memorable -- for Opelika and the Left.
Tony Perkins's Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.