Instead of religion in schools, educators should focus on learning


The latest US Supreme Court decision on school prayer takes me back to a crisp fall afternoon in 1961. I was in the stands with my friends nervously watching our Hillsdale High School football team of San Mateo, Calif., on the edge of defeat in the championship game against famously tough Capuchino High School of San Bruno.

There was just a minute left in the game. We led by five points, but the ball was on our 5-yard line.

Hillsdale’s 25-year-old coach exchanged a look with defensive captain Bob Christopherson. It was time for a team prayer, an idea that offended my religious sensibility. The liberal Protestant church I attended frowned on seeking divine assistance in such circumstances.

Nobody kneeling for that prayer can remember exactly what was said, but afterward the Capuchino ball carrier was tackled short of the goal line. We won 12-7.

I was happy, but embarrassed to think that religion and school spirit might have gotten mixed up. I liked the coach and let the doctrinal issues slide. I’m still trying to sort out the prayer-in-schools controversy that has again become a national topic.

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My Washington Post colleague Hannah Natanson has written a remarkable article on widespread religious involvement in American school life. The June 27 Supreme Court ruling in favor of Washington state high school football coach Joseph Kennedy — who prayed after games and was joined by team members — will likely make such moments even more common.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, told Natanson her group has long been fighting back against coaches who lead prayers with students at school or school officials who schedule prayers during educational events. Fifty percent of the group’s caseload involves such incidents. Gaylor liked her efforts to whack-a-mole.

Some communities consider talking to God at school no big deal. Amy Kruppe, the schools superintendent in Hazel Park, Mich., told her school board it was unconstitutional for them to open meetings with a prayer, but they didn’t stop. Coaches also lead prayers at games “and no one says anything about it,” Kruppe told Natanson.

What should people like me who are uncomfortable with state-sanctioned religiosity do about that? Will spending even more time and money on legal resistance help? Schools need to focus on learning, which is not going well these days. It will be a while before we again have a Supreme Court sympathetic to our views. Maybe there are ways to bring religious issues into schools that will unite rather than divide us.

Natanson provides examples of educators suggesting lessons on the history of religion that don’t proselytize, but educate. Bill DeFrance, superintendent of the Eaton Rapids public schools in Michigan, said coach-led prayer could serve as a way to learn about other cultures.

He told Natanson, “I could see some real interesting things like, ‘Okay, Bill, you’re Hindu. You lead the prayer this week,’ and get some background about why Hindus pray.”

I oppose religious intrusions that hurt children and offend parents. That doesn’t appear to be a problem in Hazel Park, where Kruppe estimated the population was 50 percent White, 50 percent Black and as far as she could tell nearly 100 percent Christian.

Christopherson, the Hillsdale defensive captain in 1961, told me recently that it was the first and only time the team had what he called a “prayer/meditation” during a game. The referees looked surprised. As in pregame prayers, he said, he shared “essential thoughts about us and our abilities, not thoughts to win or to beat.” He said the prayer “was important psychologically, but not as religion.”

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What impressed me most about Hillsdale’s young coach then was not his religious views but his enthusiasm for football. It is an American pseudo-religion I believe in but is not covered by the First Amendment.

Previously at our school, the athletic teams had few ambitions. We won some games and lost others. The new coach hated that. He replaced the team’s ancient leather helmets, got a camera to record games, organized a parents’ booster club, prepared scouting reports on our opponents and shared his detailed notes on what coaches like Vince Lombardi were doing.

He made it fun. The team came to his house Monday nights to watch their game films and dig into the cake his wife baked for the player of the week. I loved the Garish posters he had our wildest student artist put up on the locker room walls extolling “DESIRE, DETERMINATION AND GUTS.”

It didn’t occur to me until many years later that the coach had ways to excite kids that resembled what I was seeing in the nation’s most effective classrooms. A history teacher had instructor vs. class trivia contests each Friday to get kids working as a team. An English teacher dashed around his room asking questions, going students into reacting and making them feel that together they were discovering the truth. A math teacher played Queen’s “We Are the Champions” at the beginning of each class as his students pounded their desks.

I think there are ways to explore religion in school without unconstitutionally picking sides, although it will take skilled teachers to pull it off. It’s worth a try, particularly in communities where parents think, as one school official told Natanson, that if the district recognizes LGBTQ History Month it should do something similar with religion.

I never saw the Hillsdale coach have another prayer timeout. He turned out to be a motivational genius. He coached at a community college, then led the UCLA football team to victory in the Rose Bowl. He was head coach of NFL teams in Philadelphia, St. Louis and Kansas City.

His name is Dick Vermeil, and he is now 85. His St. Louis Rams won the Super Bowl in 2000. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 6.

I met Vermeil the first day of my sophomore year, when he handed me a towel in PE class. He looked so young I first thought he was a senior getting some easy credits as a teacher’s aid. I soon noticed how kind and encouraging he was, even to undersized and awkward kids like me.

A prayer timeout was something he thought would encourage his players at a critical moment. Finding ways to help young people handle challenges is what great teachers and coaches do. I cheer for those working on how best to accomplish that.