As much as I believe (pun unintended) in the separation of church and state, Americans United for Separation of Church and State must be living in an alternate precedential and current-court reality if the group honestly thinks, as executive director and attorney the Rev. Barry W. Lynn says, that prayer in collegiate football programs "is a lawsuit waiting to happen." A NYT article on the matter takes a disturbingly credulous look at the plausibility of such litigation having any success.
In 2000, the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed its decisions against officially sponsored prayer in public schools in a case involving a district in Santa Fe, Tex., where prayers preceded high school football games over the public-address system.Sante Fe Independent School District v. Doe is good law, but what Lynn apparently failed to mention is that the Supreme Court consistently has distinguished between religious activity by public elementary and secondary schools, which are attended by minors under state mandate, and religious activity by public universities, attended voluntarily by adults. While Lynn frets about the pressure to go along with Christian observance that is felt by a football player who wants to please his coach, he seems to ignore that wanting to please a superior does not rise to the level of quasi-compulsion that the Court recognized as the problem in a line of cases: McCollum v. Board of Education, Engel v. Vitale, Abington School District v. Schempp, Stone v. Graham, Wallace v. Jaffree (though possibly narrowed by the Court's refusal to hear Brown v. Gilmore) and Lee v. Weisman.
The 6-to-3 majority opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens said that even when attendance is voluntary and when the decision to pray is made by students, "the delivery of a pregame prayer has the improper effect of coercing those present to participate in an act of religious worship," which violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
That may be the law, but God has long played a prominent role in the game's mythology, from the postcards of the former Alabama Coach Bear Bryant walking on water, to the mosaic of Christ with raised arms on a Notre Dame library that looms above the football stadium and is known as Touchdown Jesus.
Nor is there a will on this Court to overturn the distinction between minors forced to attend school and vulnerable to coercion because of their age, and adults who can leave the football program, and the college, whenever they want. To remove religious observance from occasions where only adults are voluntarily present -- the opening of the Supreme Court and Congress, for example -- likely would create an even greater outcry than that which greeted the Ninth Circuit's decision in Newdow.