TAHLEQUAH, Okla. - Chief Chad Smith of the Cherokee Nation says prayers will continue to be offered before athletic events at tribal schools despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that school-sponsored prayer at sporting events are a violation of students' constitutional rights.
In June, the court ruled in Santa Fe Independent School District vs. Jane Doe that the school could not continue to say prayers over the public address system before athletic events. The original case was between the parents of students who didn't want prayers before athletic events being broadcast over the schools public address system.
Officials across the country began dealing with impact of the ruling as schools across the country kicked off the first football games of the season.
Although tribal schools receive funding from the federal government, Smith said the ruling doesn't affect the Cherokee Nation because of its sovereignty. "Our operations are outside of state jurisdiction and that's well established."
The ruling drew criticism from many state leaders, including Gov. Frank Keating, as well as tribal leaders in Oklahoma. Most noticeably the ruling will end the practice of public prayer before University of Oklahoma football games.
It is unclear whether civil liberties groups will attempt to stop the practice of praying at athletic events by the Cherokee Nation, but Smith doesn't believe attempts would be successful because of Supreme Court cases that recognized the tribe's sovereignty .
Spokesmen from other Oklahoma tribes said they weren't sure whether or not their tribes would follow the lead of the Cherokee Nation or would abide by the decision of the Supreme Court.
"The U.S. Constitution protects its citizens from its government. It bars and limits the powers of the state and federal governments. The Cherokee Nation has its own constitution which limits the powers of tribal government." Smith said, "We maintain the right that religion can be a part of our government if we so choose."
Smith concluded by saying that what goes on in a tribal school is not the business of the state, but the business of the tribe. A tribal spokesman said lawsuits from tribal members to stop the practice of prayers before athletic events didn't seem likely, but that the tribe would deal with them if it came to that.
His stance echoes that of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina, most of whom belong to Methodist or Baptist denominations.
"We've always done it and we always will," said Kathy Wolfe, a member of that band's school board. "It's a sovereignty issue."