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Photo by Dan King

Recently, Montoursville High School and its athletic department have come under fire. It’s not a typical high school sports complaint of ineligible players or excessive coaches. Instead, this complaint stems from a team prayer held before the district championship baseball game.

While I think most people (Christians and non-Christians) would file this in the “don’t we have bigger things to worry about” drawer, we really shouldn’t be surprised. After all, in this day and age, that’s what people do. They complain. 

What is somewhat surprising is where the complaint comes from. The Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin, is the group crying foul. Supposedly, a “concerned relative of a student” contacted the watchdog foundation who, in turn, contacted the Montoursville School District. 

Any person with a morsel of common sense can see how this argument will play out. The Montoursville District and coaches will say the prayer is voluntary, and no kid is forced to participate. The complainers will then comeback with, “even though it’s voluntary, if a player refuses to join the prayer, will he be ostracized, or possibly have his playing time cut.” 

And this is where I think The Freedom From Religion Foundation hits their argumentative roadblock. They can’t frame this into an unknown, futuristic view, because the practice of praying before sporting events at Montoursville has gone on for years. Without doing any research, I can tell you that the Montoursville High School Football program prayed before every game during the Chuck Bowman and Jim Bergen regimes. That means for AT LEAST 35 years (from 1975 to 2010), those teams prayed before every game. I also remember praying before basketball games, but I’m not sure of the exact years and coaches. And quite frankly, the exact details aren’t important.

What is important is we have decades of hard-fast data from Montoursville alone. And please don’t try to tell me Montoursville has been the only local public school that’s prayed prior to sporting events. Before we allow one rogue complainer to do away with an age-old tradition, shouldn’t they have to prove their case? Shouldn’t they be forced to come up with at least one kid (out of probably a thousand) who claims he/she was adversely affected or had his/her playing time cut by either the presence or their lack of participation in a pre-game prayer? 

I think we all understand the need for separation of church and state, just as we agree players should not be rewarded or punished due to any religious affiliation or lack thereof, but doesn’t this issue afford the opportunity to make real social advancement?

The protesters say the team prayer makes the non-prayers uncomfortable, therefore no one should be allowed to pray. Thus, if everyone is acting in the same manner, no one can be offended. 

Wouldn’t another approach be to allow differences and encourage tolerance and acceptance of those differences?

Simply put, let the prayers pray, let the non-prayers abstain, and respect everyone’s right to choose. In our society today, which still struggles with tolerance and the idea of “if I don’t like it, you shouldn’t do it” that still reigns far more often than it should, the public school system should be THE PLACE to try to teach humanity. In a world seemingly becoming continually more divisive than unified, and a culture still tangling with racial tensions and sexual identities, wouldn’t this acceptance of religious differences be a step in the right direction? 

I’m been to several masses and I’m not Catholic. I’ve been to a bris and I’m not Jewish. Not only did I survive, I think I’m a better person for it. 

In the grand scheme of life, if coaches can teach kids to accept people who are different than themselves, that would be much greater than teaching them how to pitch or hit or block or tackle.  

Mark Mussina is a graduate of Montoursville High School (’90) and played baseball, football, and basketball.