Faith and the School Board (Jul-Oct 2008)

By Matt Dabbs

by Curtis K. Shelburne
July – October, 2008

In June of 2000, the U. S. Supreme Court issued a 6-3 ruling in a Texas case (Santa Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe) prohibiting public schools from allowing student-led prayer before high school football games.

Suit had been brought in 1995 against the school district by two students and their mothers, and the American Civil Liberties Union (of course), alleging that even student-led prayer at a football game, violated the First Amendment of the Constitution.

In the majority opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that “the delivery of a pregame prayer has the improper effect of coercing those present to participate in an act of religious worship.”

In a “strongly-worded” dissenting opinion, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote that the ruling distorted “existing precedent” and “even more disturbing than its holding is the tone of the Court’s opinion; it bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life.” He continued, “Neither the holding nor the tone of the opinion is faithful to the meaning of the Establishment Clause,” and he remarked that President George Washington himself had called for a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer.”

The highly-respected legal scholar under my hat agrees with Rehnquist. The ruling had me bristling, too.

Personally, I am thankful for a legal system that, at its best, works to ensure fairness for all, but I think the Supreme Court’s holding in this case disregards the intent of the framers of the Constitution.

Personally, I’m aware that most prayers prayed at football games can never be prohibited. I’ve had four sons play football, and at every game I have prayed for their safety and that they glorify God by playing with all the ability he gave them. I admit I’ve not been able to bring myself to ask that they play well enough to receive the Booster Club’s coveted “Slobber-knocker” award given to the player with the best “hit” of the game. (They’ve received the award anyway.)

Personally, even if I were a member of a distinctly minority faith and enrolled my children in public school, all the while aware of the religious persuasion of the vast majority of that particular public, I hope I would show my children by example that good upbringing, courtesy, and common sense would indicate that enduring a prayer I might not completely agree with at a football game might be rightly viewed as a relatively minor irritant.

Personally, while I have appreciated the football game opening prayers including a petition for safety for all players, I’d noticed that many of those prayers had morphed into the vapid but politically correct “To Whom It May Concern” variety. On that level, I’m not sure that losing those is losing much.

Still, I personally bristled at the ruling. But I found myself dealing with the ruling in a setting that was not simply personal.

Life on the School Board

I was 29 years old and had been living in the small West Texas community (population 4500) of Muleshoe, Texas, and serving as minister of one of its churches for less than two years when the school superintendent called: “Hey, Curtis, would you serve on a committee to help find new playground equipment for the elementary school campuses?”

When I assented, I had no idea that I was embarking on a relationship with the Muleshoe Independent School District that would lead to my being elected to seven terms and serving on the MISD Board of Trustees for eighteen years.

Before Easter of 1985 when we moved to Muleshoe, I’d never lived in a small town and knew nothing of the fine quality of life they can afford, but I soon began to learn. That fall our oldest son started kindergarten at the campus down the hill from our house. When he was in second grade, I was elected to my first term on the school board. Before my service on that board ended, I’d handed high school diplomas to each of our four sons. I learned as much as they did, and I never served with a single individual who did not honestly have the good of each of our community’s children at heart. Remarkable!

How many meetings in those years? Too many. Both agony and ecstasy? Yes. I faced some gut-wrenching decisions and an occasional issue that tested friendships, tried patience, and brought pain. But I was also able to see our small, demographically diverse, “property poor” district enjoy success rivaling that of much larger and wealthier districts.

I will always remember, though, the very difficult meeting our board spent wrestling with how the Court’s football game prayer decision would affect our little community. A number of citizens appeared before us to express their perplexity, frustration, and anger. I knew these people. Some were individuals whose reputation for angry politics might easily outpace their reputation for piety. But most were folks who simply could not imagine how the Court could make such a ruling in America. They were astounded that on the coming Friday night, time-honored pre-game activities might fall to such folly.

I understood how they felt. I felt much the same way. Yes, I had taken an oath to “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Did I honestly believe that grand document would be harmed by student-led prayers at a Muleshoe High School football game? Of course not.

When these members of our community, almost all of them Christian, stood before our publicly-elected board, their very presence articulated clearly if not eloquently their frustration at impotently watching yet again as a court slapped their faith in the face. They stood before fellow citizens they had elected to represent them in the institution that most strongly defines our town. They trusted us and felt it was time for us to “stand up and be counted,” to uphold their values, to truly defend a Constitution being trampled in ways they found repugnant, and, not least, to take a stand for Christ and against Caesar. To them it was a “Choose this day whom you will serve” issue, and our choice was clear: Would we serve God or serve man? What decision would the elected representatives of their community make?

Three Principles

Most decisions I faced serving on our school board were relatively simple and blissfully mundane. The memorable instance I’ve revisited for you was neither as it posed a difficult dilemma. But as I have been forced to wrestle with my role as a Christian serving in the public arena, I think I have learned something. I offer here three principles a Christian elected to public office should consider.

First, you must recognize that you are indeed a public servant.

The word “public” carries consequences as real as theories of creation in textbooks, regulations regarding facility use, and, yes, prayers before football games.

The ramifications of representative government are complex, but this much is obvious: A public servant is elected to help make decisions for the public good. Not just the bald public, if you’re bald. Not just the wealthy public, if you’re wealthy. Not just the purple public, if you’re purple. And, as precious as your Christian faith is, not just the Christian public if you’re Christian.

This calls for wisdom. Can your faith be separated from your decisions and your life itself? I hope not. But loving God calls us to follow Christ’s example in selflessly desiring the good of all people. To seem to serve just a “Christian agenda” is to fail both in our service to the public and in our service to God, a failure that demeans our faith by tempting others to view Christians as members of one more self-interest group among many.

A Christian elected official should be one whose faith so impacts his life that he will be difficult to shelve under one label, even “Christian.” Label him instead as “honest,” “full of integrity,” “courageous,” “respected.”

Serving Christ should lead such a person who is elected, for example, to a school board, to be more, not less, committed to caring for all the children his service will affect, whether the majority of his constituents are Baptist or Buddhist. In fact, a Christian is duty bound to especially keep in mind the needs of the weak, whatever their creed.

Public service. Public trust.

Second, you must be unusual.

Usually, I’m afraid, thinking of ourselves as unusual opens the door to arrogance. That’s not at all what I have in mind. I’m thinking instead of the qualitative difference that should characterize the service of an elected official who honors Christ.

She should be unusually unselfish, representing not just the interests of a few, but representing all.

He should be unusually strong. He has no need to be loud. The finest proof of his strength is that he is respected as being remarkably gentle.

She should be unusually perceptive and willing to learn. By unusual attentiveness to the words, counsel, and feelings of others, she manifests an unusual respect for others. She works to find something to respect even in those with whom she often disagrees, something upon which understanding can be built.

He should be unusually quick to listen and slow to speak. When he speaks, he does so as a peacemaker desiring understanding, reconciliation, and the right sort of compromise. He is respected as a mediator who helps people of varied opinions work together to achieve something beneficial.

She should be unusually wise in knowing when and how to compromise. An elected public servant will face many issues about which people of good will, Christian or not, may reasonably disagree. Not every issue is worth dying for. Not every issue must be fought today. If you serve well, you build a reserve of respect that to draw on when truly important issues arise. If you do battle over every issue, you will neither deserve nor build that reserve.

Yes, you might conceivably face a decision akin to the one the apostles Peter and John faced long ago when they were indeed forced to choose between serving God or man. But to serve Christ best you should valiantly resist the temptation to paint every issue that color. To be uncompromising in some situations is praiseworthy. To be uncompromising in others is bull-headed, arrogant, and counterproductive. To know which situation is which? You need to ask the Lord for unusual wisdom.

In the final analysis, to be truly successful, a Christian elected official must be unusually loving. In a society where mindlessly weak “tolerance” masquerades as high virtue, he or she should display genuine love that says, “I deeply disagree with your position, but still I accept you as a person of immense value.”

Unusual? Yes, in the very best ways!

Third, you cannot afford the luxury of being loud about your faith.

Probably always true but never more so than in our present age, if you wish to be effective for Christ in your public service, your faith must be as gentle and quiet as it is strong.

If after you take the oath of office, you immediately run up a flag to proclaim, “I’m a Christian, and every decision I will make on this board is one I intend to glorify Christ,” you’ll likely find that you’ve gained nothing, Christ is not glorified, and you’re marginalized. Credibility with your fellow board members can only be earned, and that takes time. If they’re Christians, they’ll likely not be impressed by loud soliloquies of faith. If they are not Christians, they’ll likely be quite unimpressed.

If you choose to bring religion prominently into your discourse, you’ll likely encounter resistance from some Christians who will never be convinced that you’re speaking to their issues loudly enough, and you’ll be opposed just as vigorously by those who don’t share your faith and find it difficult to appreciate or respect public piety. Like it or not, in our society loudly proclaiming your faith as a public elected official is a no-win proposition which will help neither your witness for Christ nor your effectiveness.

I’m not commending cowardice. What I’m commending is strength of conviction that is as wise as it is strong. We honor Christ by enduring persecution when we must. But “persecution” we bring on ourselves by confusing strong faith with obstinacy, pretension, and condescension, honors no one.

If you honor Christ in your public service by quietly displaying the “wisdom from above” that is as deep as it is gentle and strong . . .

If you honor Christ by working for understanding and reconciliation and by standing for that which is good, right, and fair, and leads to the highest good for the public you serve . . .

Then I think you will find that most of your colleagues will recognize the quality of your service. If they share your faith, they will thank God for the opportunity to serve alongside you. And the time will likely come when even those who do not share your faith and recognize by name the “fruits of the Spirit” which you demonstrate, will nonetheless be thankful for those qualities in your life and service. You may be surprised at the doors for more overt Christian witness that will be opened if you trust God’s timing and let his Spirit lead you to opportunities only he can provide based on the trust and respect that only quality service rendered over time can earn.

The Guiding Principle

One principle undergirds all the rest: Render your public service “as serving the Lord.”

As a Christian elected to public service, you genuinely serve the public best by serving Christ best. As you serve the Lord and lead a life of love (always far better than tolerance), characterized by a deep peace (not just a truce with strife), encouraged by hope (for that which is truly lasting), motivated by real joy (which transcends circumstances and will lead you through the tough times) you’ll be genuinely blessed and you will be a genuine blessing.

The Decision of the Board

What choice did our school board make regarding the “football prayer” issue?

We sat in a board room in a small town discussing an issue unlikely to have raised its head in our conservative and traditional town for years.

With the loud voices of good but frustrated fellow citizens ringing in our ears, we cursed the fact that we felt strong-armed by a court far away into dealing with a decision we didn’t want to face.

And here’s what we did: We made the right choice to uphold a wrongheaded ruling because we really had no choice.

No choice. A Christian elected to public service will find at times that he or she faces exactly that depressing reality. But many more occasions will arise when serving both the public and, on a deeper level, the Lord, will bring a genuine blessing.


“The Supreme Court: Excerpts from Supreme Court: Opinions on Prayer.” The New York Times, 20 June 2000. Archives on-line. Available from http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D05E4D71231F933A15755C0A9669C8B63&scp=6&sq=santa+fe+independent&st=nyt. Accessed 1 June 2008.
Tony Mauro. “The Supreme Court Bans Student-led Prayer at Football Games.” Freedomforum.org, 19 June 2000. Available from http://www.freedomforum.org/templates/document.asp?documentID=12727. Accessed 1 June 2008.
New Wineskins

Curtis K. ShelburneCurtis K. Shelburne is a minister, editor, and author. He and his wife Juana live in Muleshoe, Texas, and are the parents of four sons, one beautiful granddaughter and another on the way. His weekly “Focus on Faith” e-column is available at [www.focusonfaith.injesus.com], and his web site is [www.CurtisShelburne.com] .

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1579 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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