GARDENDALE, Ala. (WIAT) – Prayers over the loudspeaker before football games are no longer allowed at Jefferson County Schools’ football games.
The move comes after the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a complaint to the district last fall calling it unconstitutional.
Community members in Gardendale are concerned that taking away that opening prayer will take away from a longstanding tradition to protect the football players and their families before games.
“I’m very thankful and proud that we start every council meeting off with prayer,” Gardendale Mayor Stan Hogeland said.
Prayer is a tradition before meetings and home football games – until now.
“It’s as much a part of the game as buying a hot dog and getting some popcorn,” Hogeland said.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation announced Monday that Jefferson County Schools will no longer have loudspeaker prayers before games, calling it a violation of the separation of church and state.
“Your personal choice where your religious or not religious views are, the government cannot be imposing that religion,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line said. “We’re big fans of public schools and big supporters of government. That’s why I do this work to make sure government is supporting everyone.”
Jefferson County Schools Superintendent. Dr. Walter Gonsoulin responded to our request for comment in a statement:
“A recent press release featured the Jefferson County Board’s response to a complaint about opening football games with a public prayer at two of its high schools. The complaint was administratively resolved at the school level, and not as a result of formal Board action or any newly adopted Board policy. That resolution was based on the Board’s legal obligations that have been established by binding court precedent. However, the Board’s adherence to those rulings should not be understood as a rejection of students’ religious rights and liberties in the school setting. The Jefferson County Board of Education remains firmly committed to respecting and protecting those rights and liberties in every way permitted by the Constitution and laws of the United States.”
It’s news that’s not sitting well with many in the community.
“I was a little disappointed, but I also understand for other fans that it might be a little awkward for them,” Gardendale resident Beverly Towery said. “God is part of our community and our daily lives so that’s removing that opportunity for them to be exposed to that.”
The mayor is hopeful everyone can find a way to still pray.
“I think there’s a way we can sit there and we can pray before the game and start the game just like we always have,” Hogeland said.
The FFRF also cited Pinson Valley High School as another school allowing prayers before games.
In a letter to the FFRF, the district responded to a September 16, 2021 request from Line on March 14, 2022 saying Gonsoulin met with school principals and administration to not allow prayer at school-sponsored events, including football games.