Shiloh football team

Shiloh Christian High School's football team kneels in prayer Saturday before the state nine-man quarterfinal with Linton/HMB at Miller Field in Bismarck.

The North Dakota High School Activities Association has not created a new rule banning prayers at sports games, the executive director said Monday after a Facebook post went viral over the weekend fueling speculation about a policy change.

A photo of the St. Mary's and Kindred high school football teams praying together after Saturday's playoff game in Bismarck has been shared more than 2,000 times on Facebook. The post made by a local resident states that the activities association "said no public prayers before the game."

Matt Fetsch, executive director of the state activities association, told the Bismarck Tribune that a prayer cannot be delivered over the public-address system at a postseason game because those games are hosted by the association and not the home team.

"We're a public entity, too, so we have to adhere to those state and federal laws," he said.

He said opening prayers have not occurred at postseason games for 15 years — ever since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that doing so was unconstitutional.

Private schools can choose to say a prayer over the PA at regular-season games when they are the hosts, Fetsch said.

The controversy over prayers at school sports games drew headlines across the nation last week when a public school district in Washington state put a football coach on leave for praying with students after games.

In North Dakota, Superintendent Travis Jordan of Shiloh Christian School said the subject came up after his school's first football playoff game Oct. 24 in Bismarck.

A prayer is always given over the PA at the start of regular-season Shiloh games, he said. One was not offered Oct. 24 because it was a postseason game hosted by the activities association, Jordan said.

Community members inquired about the reason why, he said.

He attempted to clarify the situation in several emails to the Shiloh community.

In lieu of a prayer over the PA at Saturday's game, he encouraged people to attend a prayer held at the flagpoles of the Miller Field complex.

"You can congregate together and pray at the game as long as it is not forced," such as over the PA, he wrote.

He said about 12 parents participated in the prayer at the flagpoles.

In future regular-season games, Jordan said Shiloh will hold prayers over the PA just as the school usually does.

"It's not the high school activities association's fault," he said. "They're just a public entity abiding by public laws."

Fetsch said the activities association does not have any policy or rules prohibiting prayer.

The St. Mary's Central High School football team, for example, prayed on the Community Bowl field after winning Saturday's game.

Rev. Jared Johnson, the school's chaplain, said members of the team from Kindred spontaneously joined in the prayer with the St. Mary's athletes.

The father of one of the St. Mary’s players, Mark Armstrong, said he saw the two teams kneeling and snapped a photo, which he posted on Facebook.

“It warmed my heart to see a public and private school come together and do that,” he said in an email.

Armstrong questioned why the Legislature or a county commission meeting can start with a prayer but not a public football game.

“The Supreme Court is not God,” he said. “God calls all of us to pray for one another. As St. John Paul said, ‘Be not afraid.’”

His Facebook post prompted more than 200 comments on his account alone.

Johnson said some Facebook users have twisted the events to imply the prayer was a sign of protest against the activities association.

That's not the case, he said. The St. Mary's team often holds similar prayers on game day.

"For us, prayer is never a sign of protest," Johnson said. "Prayer is a sign of unity."

Gerald Vetter, president of Light of Christ Catholic Schools, said St. Mary's in years past has followed the prohibition of prayers over the PA at postseason games.

"This is nothing new," said Vetter, adding that the activities association did not contact the school about forgoing an opening prayer at Saturday's game.

"We have not had any conflicts or conversations with the North Dakota High School Activities Association," he said. "There was no reason to."

Jordan suggested people contact Shiloh in the future for a direct answer to questions about an issue concerning the school, such as prayers at football games.

"I think a lot of this could have been avoided if I had just gotten a phone call," he said.

(Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8267 or amy.sisk@bismarcktribune.com.)

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