While the First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees us the freedom of, and from, religion, there have been an increasing number of incidents of high school students being forced into prayer in Oklahoma, Missouri, Alabama, Texas, and Florida. Unfortunately, Colorado students are not immune from this growing attack on the separation of church and state. Let me share my story.
In August, my senior-year high school golf season took an unexpected turn at RainDance National Golf Course in Windsor when my team and I were there for a tournament hosted by a Christian high school. Minutes before teeing off, the host golf coach perched high on a silo, gathered all 112 players from 28 public and private schools and announced final instructions over a loudspeaker. As I turned to get my golf clubs, a school official took the loudspeaker and told all players to remove their hats and bow their heads for a prayer. I left my hat on and kept my head up during the minute-long invocation.
Fast forward to mid-September, and my team and I had qualified for the Colorado 3A State Championship, to be held at the same golf course, hosted by the same Christian school. Recognizing the potential implications of the August incident, I reached out to CHSAA (Colorado High School Activities Association) to voice my concerns and those of other players who were concerned with the prayer. I asked that CHSAA prohibit public prayer at the State Championship.
Initially, CHSAA denied my request, stating that the Christian school would conduct another prayer but with an option for students to exit if they chose not to participate. I argued that this public, coercive prayer was in violation of students’ Constitutional rights. In a welcome turn of events, just before the tournament, CHSAA reversed its position and informed me that there would be no prayer at the State Championship.
This victory was not just a personal one but a triumph for students across Colorado. It prevented another violation of students’ First Amendment rights and established CHSAA’s stance against coercive prayers, protecting the rights of all students in the state. The separation of church and state is an issue of immense importance for those who believe in freedom of religion. It ensures that our government remains neutral, allowing individuals to practice their beliefs or non-beliefs without interference.
I am the founder of the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) Denver high school chapter, which supports and mobilizes secular, marginalized, and students of any religion who believe that there is no freedom of religion without a government that is free from religion. I encourage other students who have faced or are facing coercive prayers to reach out to me through my SSA chapter.
CHSAA’s change of stance is a testament to the power of student advocacy and the importance of standing up for our rights. Students should be aware of their rights, especially when school administrators fail to meet their moral and legal obligations to protect their students from coercive religious practices, particularly in public schools.
The separation of church and state is not just a matter of principle; it is a safeguard that ensures freedom of religion for all. I encourage other students to join my SSA chapter and take up the mantle of defending the separation of church and state enshrined in the Constitution. Together, we can be voices for those marginalized, secular, and non-Christian students who are most affected by the rise of Christian nationalism. This fight is a collective effort, and it is one that can shape a more inclusive and equitable future for all.
“The separation of church and state means public schoolchildren and their families, not school officials, get to decide if, when, and how they pray. No child attending public school should feel they have to pray to play school sports.” Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
“Young Americans should not be pressured or coerced into praying or practicing a religion while participating in any state-sponsored event. The Colorado High School Activities Association, the State of Colorado, and the public school coaches and administrators have a responsibility to protect their students’ constitutional rights and not allow students to be forced to pray,” said Kevin Bolling, executive director of the Secular Student Alliance. “Almost 50% of young people today identify as nonreligious. I applaud Luke for his courage to stand up for himself, other nonreligious students, and non-Christian students and ensure CHSAA is responsible for protecting students from religious coercion now and in the future. Of course, students have the right to pray on their own, but forced prayer is un-American and un-Constitutional.”
by Luke Fisher, a Colorado high school student