Pray or Play: Religious Accommodation for Student-Athletes

by: Mickey Ingles 

When I used to play college ball, our team huddle always ended with a short prayer and a plea to our patron saint to protect us from injury (and, of course, give us a win). We even went to mass before every game. And no one really dissented or objected or even seemed to care that we did. Of course, this was expected—we did suit up for a private Jesuit school and in terms of religious denomination, we were as homogenous as could be.

The question is, what about student-athletes of public universities and schools (“PUS”)? Are they allowed to pray? And more importantly, what happens to the player who doesn’t want to pray?

The answers can be found in our Constitution. The Philippine Constitution states, “No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”[1]

The first clause is the non-establishment clause, which, at its simplest, prohibits state advancement or endorsement of a particular religion. We don’t want the state meddling with religious affairs, and vice-versa. It’s just not a good mix. The non-establishment clause is the reason why the Philippines doesn’t have a state religion, even if a majority of its citizens are Catholics.

The second clause is the free exercise clause, which allows citizens to believe whatever in the world they want to believe. You want to worship Merry and Pippin? Go ahead and have your second breakfast. But as any law student worth his or her salt would know, while the freedom to believe is absolute, the freedom to act on that belief can be limited (i.e. you can’t always have your second breakfast). The free exercise clause also prohibits the compulsion to pray.

merry pippin.gif

The non-establishment clause and the free exercise clause are the reasons why prayer has been shunned away in PUS, at least in the United States.[2] The non-establishment clause forbids prayer in PUS, because the effect would be a state actor endorsing a certain religion. And if ever a public school or university skirts the non-establishment clause and does call its student-athletes to prayer, the free exercise clause prohibits PUS from compelling an objecting student to pray.

If we want to be strict about things (and stay in the safe side of the religion clauses), religion should be kept out of athletic events in PUS. But hello, we live in a predominantly Catholic/Christian country. We will be praying in athletic events (we even pray in court!) That’s just how it is in the Philippines. We take these things for granted. We don’t face the same religion clause issues compared to the United States because we simply aren’t as diverse as they are—at least not yet. The likelihood that someone will complain is small simply because most of us are on the same religious boat.

But assuming a student-athlete objects, what should PUS do? For example, a student-athlete doesn’t want to join the rest of the team in a team huddle to pray, can he be reprimanded for sitting it out? And what if a student-athlete can’t play or train on a certain day because of religious reasons (say, she’s a Seventh Day Adventist and can’t play on Saturdays), should she be cut from the team? What should schools do?

(While these apply to public universities and schools, private schools will do well to be aware of these issues too.)

First, they should take the claim seriously. An athletic director or a coach dismissing a religious objection right off the bat is definitely not the way to go—no matter how trivial the claim may seem to be. It may seem trivial to them, but religious feelings and beliefs run deep. And it’s best to be sensitive and open-minded enough take these things seriously.

No one wants to be the school that scoffed at a student-athlete’s religious needs. That’s a PR nightmare that even Olivia Pope will have a hard time handling.

olivia pope.gif

Second, they should accommodate. Philippine case law has mandated that religious objectors be accommodated. Unlike the United States, we have adopted a benevolent neutrality approach to religious objectors.[3] This basically means that as much as possible, religious objectors should be exempted from regulations or obligations—even if these are generally applicable to everyone—if their religious tenets forbid or compel them to do otherwise.

For the student-athlete that doesn’t want to join the team prayer, the coach should simply allow him or her to sit it out. (In fact, an argument can be raised that the team shouldn’t be praying in the first place—but that’s a complicated issue that I don’t want to touch, lol.)

For the student-athlete that can’t play on Saturdays because of her religion, the school should accommodate her as well. Maybe give her an extra session to make-up for missed practices? Or move practices altogether. Of course, more complications arise when schools don’t have a say in game schedules prepared by sports associations or leagues. What can a school do then? (I honestly don’t have an answer and am literally shrugging as I type.)

Wait, does this apply to all cases? Does this mean that religious objectors can get a free pass at anything?

Well, not really. The Philippine Supreme Court has said that as long as there is a sufficiently compelling state interest to justify the infringement of the person’s religious liberty and the least intrusive means possible was used in advancing this interest, then the religious objector has to comply.[4]

It’s quite a heavy burden to place on the PUS. I mean, look at it this way: is there a compelling state interest in having team prayers? Or having practices on certain and specific days of the week?

Schools will have headaches justifying seemingly innocuous regulations or practices that might, in fact, infringe on a student-athletes’ religious freedom. In the end, a ton of adjustments will be made. And most of these will be for the benefit of one, maybe two, student-athletes whose religion just happened to be different from the rest of their teammates. These adjustments may be inconvenient, impractical even, but that’s the price we pay to uphold the values enshrined in our Constitution.

Schools will do well to protect the religious rights of its student-athletes, whatever faith they hang on to, because in the end, when we protect the rights of others, we’re protecting ours as well.

Mickey Ingles is the editor-in-chief of Batas Sportiva. He also teaches Sports Law in the Ateneo Law School. (And yes, that’s him standing in the picture.)

[1] Article III, Section 5.

[2] Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 US 290 (2000).

[3] Estrada v. Escritor, A.M. No. P-02-1651 (August 4, 2003)

[4] Id.


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