The Anchorage Baptist Temple's school will not host this year's state wrestling tournament for small high schools, as it has in the past, after the Alaska School Activities Association asked it to stop its practice of including a public prayer in the event.
An attendee of the 2013 event had complained to a national church-state separation watchdog group, which told the ASAA that as a public entity it couldn't sanction prayer at a school extracurricular event.
Removing the prayer "was a show stopper for us," said Tom Cobaugh, the administrator of the private Anchorage Christian Schools, the Anchorage Baptist Temple's education ministry. "That's who we are."
The prayer issue made its way to the pulpit of the Anchorage Baptist Temple Sunday morning, when pastor Jerry Prevo used it in his sermon as an example of what he described as a "battle against prayer" in public schools.
For seven years, Anchorage Christian Schools hosted the wrestling championship for small schools in its gymnasiums, Cobaugh said. The school, which shares an East Anchorage campus with the Baptist temple, serves about 650 students from preschool to high school.
The tournament drew athletes from 1A, 2A and 3A public and private schools around the state, Cobaugh said. The school made no money from hosting the event, he said.
About 240 wrestlers and up to 1,500 spectators typically attended the two-day tournament. A prayer -- usually led by a pastor or other school staff -- was a regular feature of the tournament.
"We would pray at semifinals or finals," he said. "We do the Pledge of Allegiance, the flag is displayed, we sing the national anthem, say a prayer and then we wrestle."
The 2013 tournament, held last December, was no different. It included a public prayer delivered to the assembled crowd by an Anchorage Baptist Temple youth pastor, Cobaugh said.
"The prayer was not an evangelistic prayer to influence anyone," he said. "It was a basic prayer for protection of the student athletes, that all would compete well, have good sportsmanship. It was a very generic prayer, if I can use that word. It was unoffensive."
A few months later, in spring 2014, someone anonymously complained to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a national watchdog group, about the wrestling tournament prayer, said Ian Smith, a staff attorney for the organization.
Public prayer has no place at a state-sanctioned high school wrestling tournament, he said.
"There are undoubtedly wrestlers at that event that are not Christians. A Christian prayer does not represent them," Smith said. "That is what the separation of church and state is for: to ensure the government is not telling anybody what religion they ought to be."
The group then drafted a letter to the Alaska School Activities Association, telling the body that it needed to halt the prayers at its event.
"State athletic associations are government actors," Smith said. "As government actors, when they host an event they can't have a prayer."
After consulting with their own lawyers, the association -- which regulates school-sanctioned interscholastic activities, contests and programs -- agreed.
The board "concluded that a ASAA statewide tournament, even though hosted by (Anchorage Christian Schools) or other private school, is nevertheless sponsored by ASAA and is therefore subject to longstanding legal precedent forbidding the use of prayer at an event sponsored by a public entity," ASAA said in a statement posted on its website.
After Anchorage Christian Schools declined to host a prayer-less wrestling tournament, Bartlett High School volunteered to host the 2014 state small school wrestling tournament for 1A, 2A and 3A schools. The tournament will be held there Dec. 12-13.