When the mic went hot at Dr. M.E. Thompson Field Friday evening, Kevin Acres’ routine was a little bit different.

Acres, who has served as Oneida’s P.A. announcer for football games for the better part of the past decade, usually begins about 15 minutes before kickoff by introducing the Pride of the Tribe marching band to the field and asking fans in attendance to rise for the national anthem.

So when Acres began his pregame announcements by saying that he had a “special announcement,” eyes turned expectantly towards the press box.

Saying that his comments were his own, not necessarily those of the high school, Acres explained why a pregame invocation is no longer delivered before football games at Dr. M.E. Thompson Field. Instead, Acres told the crowd, the prayer has been replaced by a moment of silence.

“What you do during that time is completely up to you,” Acres said. “If you want to say a prayer, or choose not to say a prayer, that is your constitutional right as an American. In other words, it is no one’s place to tell you that you have to say a prayer, just as it is no one’s right to say you can’t say one.”

Then, Acres added, “I would like to conclude by saying, As for me and my house, we will worship the Lord.”

The final statement drew a roar of approval from fans on either side of Dr. M.E. Thompson Field, both the home fans wearing orange and the visiting Watertown fans wearing purple.

On the field, cheerleading squads from both schools joined hands and recited the Lord’s Prayer during the moment of silence. That effort was orchestrated by junior cheerleader Kayla King. King, the reigning Miss Scott County Fairest of the Fair, refused to accept the idea that prayers were being cut out before games and has actively lobbied school administrators for ways to bring student-led prayers back to the games.

Don’t blame the administrators at Oneida High School or the Oneida Special School District for axing the pregame prayer. Eliminating pregame prayers is a movement that has been growing for years, and it will continue to. The days when the small minority who do not recognize God would stand silently during the prayer as a show of respect to those around them with differing opinions are long gone. Embolstered by repeated opinions of the courts, that small minority has waged war against Christianity. And, at least where vocalized prayers at sporting events and other public happenings are concerned, they’re winning.

These days, when you travel across Tennessee to a high school football game, the number of high schools without a pregame prayer are nearly as large in number as the number of high schools with a pregame prayer. Too soon, the number of high schools still offering a pregame invocation will be an endangered species. The University of Tennessee has managed to hang on to its tradition of a pregame invocation at Neyland Stadium by offering a strictly non-denominational approach, but that, too, seems to be in jeopardy.

Like the schools before it, OHS had little choice but to comply when a bullying anti-Christian organization fixed its sights on the Oneida Special School District. To continue pregame prayers would have been to fight a battle that the school could not win. The school district is strapped for cash; it can hardly afford a legal battle — especially one it is absolutely certain to lose. That’s why organizations such as the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation target small schools in the first place.

It is not fair to blame OSSD Director of Schools Ann Sexton or OHS Principal Kevin Byrd for the decision to stop pregame prayers. The legal precedent has long been settled by the courts. The very part of the Bill of Rights that protects Americans’ freedom to worship is now also used to limit where or how we worship. You won’t find the words “separation of church and state” in the Constitution of the United States, but it is for all intent and purpose the law of the land due to the courts’ decisions, and that isn’t going to change. Whether the courts have correctly interpreted the Constitution is another argument for another day. For now, it is what it is. And schools like Oneida that come under the scrutiny of the select minority who seek to eliminate any mention of God from the public sector have no choice but to comply.

But that doesn’t mean the spirit of the law can diminish the spirit of Christianity. As we saw Friday night at Oneida High School, it cannot.

As silence descended across Dr. M.E. Thompson Field, the sounds of the cheerleaders from both schools reciting the prayer could easily be heard. In the stands, fans joined them — first one, then a few, spreading throughout the bleachers by the game’s end. After the game, OHS head coach Tony Lambert ended his radio interview the way he ends it every week — by “thanking my Lord and Savior for saving my soul.”

Since football began at Oneida in 1930, fans in attendance have heard a prayer, usually led by a student but sometimes by a local minister, delivered over the P.A. before the start of the game. On Friday night, and presumably for the other three Friday nights football will be played at Oneida this season, and beyond, everyone heard a prayer, led by a group of students who would not take no for an answer. Either way, those who wanted to pray, prayed. Those who didn’t did exactly what they’ve done since 1930: respected the beliefs of those around them through their silence.

Because a group of people were willing to take a stand, the spirit of Christianity was not diminished. If anything, it was emboldened. And the bullying efforts of the select minority were rendered moot and pointless.

 

<Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com.