A School-Prayer Dispute Divides Bible Belt Town

IN a town one local clergyman calls the buckle of the Bible Belt, a lawsuit challenging the use of prayer at school functions has stirred the passions of this working-class, rural Texas community - and placed it on the cusp of the national debate over religion in the classroom.

Unless a last-minute agreement can be reached today between the Santa Fe School Trustees and a Galveston lawyer working with the American Civil Liberties Union, the case is likely to end up in federal court.

The dispute centers on prayers read at graduation ceremonies and before football games, as well as the distribution of Bibles on school campuses. Although such practices are common in the South, school officials have taken the unusual step of allowing students to decide how much religion to put into invocations.

''Maybe all this has gotten out of control,'' says the Rev. Shawn Brewer, a thirty-something pastor of the Arcadia First Baptist Church, a low-lying brick building along Route 6, the town's main drag. ''But most people here believe that if 90 percent want prayer, and 10 percent don't, that the 90 percent shouldn't be told they can't pray. That's just not democratic.''

Just what the majority believes or whether that even matters is part of the controversy. Anthony Griffin, a Galveston lawyer representing four Santa Fe students and their parents, charges that Brewer and the School Trustees have created a school atmosphere that is nothing short of a ''tyranny of the majority.''

In April, Mr. Griffin filed a civil action in US District Court in Galveston contending that prayers read at the June graduation ceremony, and before each home high-school football game, endorse one religion over others, and therefore are unconstitutional. He also cited the distribution of Gideon Bibles on school grounds as a violation of the separation between church and state.

''This lawsuit is about keeping school districts out of the prayer business,'' Griffin says. ''We're very concerned that these practices chill the rights of those who are not in the majority.''

A majority of the residents of this community 45 minutes from Houston are Baptist. About 90 percent of the town is white. Many of its 9,000 residents work in the oil refineries in Texas City, or up the road at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Santa Fe sees itself as a middle-class bedroom community.

Debbie Mason, a homemaker whose daughter will be a senior when the 1,160 students at Santa Fe High School begin classes in three weeks, says the town is more religious than others along the Texas coast.

''People are much quicker here to say they're Christian, or in the Christian Right. That didn't always happen,'' Mrs. Mason says.

Using the name Jesus Christ in school prayers at graduation ceremonies, or before football games, unquestionably the best attended civic event, has long been a common practice in Texas, Mason adds.

Not surprisingly, in recent weeks the lawsuit has become a hot topic at school board meetings, at one of the town's 25 churches, and at the popular Busy Bee Diner. Much talk has gotten personal - and loud.

Margaret Snively, another parent, says people see the lawsuit in black-and-white terms. While one side yells ''heathens,'' the other answers with the label ''right-wing zealots.'' Santa Fe Superintendent Richard Ownby, who says he is trying to remain impartial, acknowledges that ''everybody has a pretty strong opinion about this.''

Hoping to find a compromise and cool public sentiments, Galveston District Judge Sam Kent plans to meet with both sides today in an effort to head off a court case - and begin the school year smoothly.

Judge Kent is no stranger to putting out Santa Fe fires. Last June, shortly after the lawsuit was filed, he instructed school administrators to require that the students chosen to read the invocation at graduation restrict their prayer to ''nonsectarian, non-proselytizing'' language. Kent was said to be following an earlier federal court ruling.

Although the two Santa Fe students chosen to read the invocation largely stayed clear of conspicuously religious language, one prayer did end with a reference to Jesus Christ. Even with television cameras recording the proceedings, many agreed the ceremony went off quietly.

But school trustees weren't satisfied. In an apparent spurning of Judge Kent's decision, the seven-person board voted July 24 to allow students to write an invocation, and prayers before football games, however they choose. The trustees emphasized students wouldn't be restricted to ''non-sectarian or non-proselytizing language.''

Hedging their bets, the school board approved a backup policy mirroring the judge's initial order. Howard Frels, a Houston attorney representing the school board, argues that giving the students the choice to formulate the invocation prayer satisfies community standards and gives students the chance to decide for themselves. ''It's a freedom of speech issue,'' Mr. Frels says.

Roland Morales, who will be a senior at Santa Fe High School when classes begin Aug. 16, echoes a common student response to the issue, arguing against prayer restrictions. ''If someone wants to pray, fine. If they don't want to, That's also fine,'' says Morales, stepping into his red pickup truck. ''The students should decide.''

Griffin, though, sees the trustees' new policy as inflexible. Students, he argues, will be easily swayed by family, friends, or even ministers. He sees a court case brewing: ''It's still a voice of tyranny, and we'll fight that.''

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