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Shanley hasn't decided whether to push prayer issue further

FARGO - Officials at the Blessed John Paul II Catholic Schools Network have agreed to abide by the North Dakota State High School Activities Association's decision that prayers broadcast by loudspeakers won't be done at NDHSAA-sponsored events, s...

Shanley players in prayer. Forum News Service file photo.
Shanley players in prayer. Forum News Service file photo.

FARGO – Officials at the Blessed John Paul II Catholic Schools Network have agreed to abide by the North Dakota State High School Activities Association's decision that prayers broadcast by loudspeakers won't be done at NDHSAA-sponsored events, such as playoff games.

Late Friday evening, representatives for Shanley High School and the Thomas More Society were emailed the NDHSAA's response to their request for suspension of the prayer rule during a football playoff game between Shanley and the Central Cass Squirrels at Shanley's Sid Cichy Stadium on Saturday.

Shanley agreed to abide by the decision, JPII Superintendent Michael Smith said Monday.

Smith said Shanley was making a request, not a demand, in seeking to have a prayer said before the game as has been done during regular season games on the school's football field.

"They (NDHSAA) said it was not allowable. We, of course, abided by that," he said.

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The game was played Saturday, and no prayer was said over the public address system.

NDHSAA attorney Rachel Bruner-Kaufman said the high school league doesn't prohibit prayers at games, but does prohibit prayer over the loudspeaker at NDHSAA-sponsored events.

Bruner-Kaufman said the NDHSAA is considered a public entity and has followed this policy since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2000 in a Texas case, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, that such prayers, even when student-initiated and student-led, violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

Shanley hasn't yet decided whether to take the issue farther, Smith said, but JPII officials will talk with Thomas More Society representatives "and see where they're at with it."

Thomas More Society spokesman Tom Ciesielka confirmed that Monday.

"My understanding is that the attorneys will get together with the school and their attorneys and decide what they may do next," Ciesielka said. "They will see what might be possible."

NDHSAA Executive Director Matthew Fetsch said he hasn't heard from Shanley or Thomas More Society representatives since forwarding Bruner-Kaufman's opinion to them on Friday.

Fetsch said the only time there is confusion on the issue of prayer is when private religious schools take part in NDHSAA-sponsored events such as sports playoffs.

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Fetsch said he doesn't know if the NDHSAA may consider moving playoff games to neutral sites to avoid the problem in the future.

"I guess I don't know," he said. "We haven't had the conversation yet."

He added that he doesn't know if the NDHSAA would be be willing to fight the issue in court.

"If it came to that, we'd have our board of directors and legal counsel meet and make a determination," Fetsch said.

Smith said prayer is important to the people who make up the Shanley community.

"Prayer is a very important part of our identity and our community, and we really feel that's who we are as a community," he said.

In their letter to the NDHSAA, Thomas More Society attorneys Peter Breen and Jocelyn Floyd contended that the Santa Fe case has no bearing on Shanley's position.

"Shanley is not a governmental actor. It is a private school, with a religious identity. When it hosts sports events, it does so as a private actor, and its religious expression cannot legitimately be characterized as that of the state," the letter said. "It appears the (NDHSAA) recognizes this, having permitted Shanley to offer prayers over its PA system prior to all its regular season games."

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The attorneys contended that NDHSAA sponsorship of the playoffs doesn't turn Shanley's field into state property and the school into a state actor.

"This 'sponsorship' is illusory; in all material respects, Shanley will be hosting the game exactly as it does in the regular season" including selling tickets and concessions, providing an announcer and down markers, etc., the letter said.

Beyond attendees seeing Shanley representatives handling all aspects of the logistics, "they will be looking down on a massive Christian cross, featured in the Shanley crest, which is emblazoned in the center of the field at the fifty-yard line," which further means trying to declare a difference between regular season and playoff games has no merit in trying to avoid an Establishment Clause violation, the letter said.

The society's lawyers also contend the prohibition on the PA prayers violates the free speech and free religious exercise rights of the school.

"The letter expresses our viewpoint pretty clearly," Smith said.

The Shanley Deacons beat Central Cass and will be playing in the state Class A football championship for the sixth time in seven years.

The Deacons will face Beulah on Friday in the Fargodome.

The Thomas More Society is a national public interest law firm with headquarters in Chicago. It focuses on cases centering on respect for religion, religious rights and constitutional issues, Ciesielka said.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
Helmut Schmidt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's business news team. Readers can reach him by email at hschmidt@forumcomm.com, or by calling (701) 241-5583.
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