Schools bow heads in defiance

Prayer still kicks off football games, despite Supreme Court ruling.

The pre-game ceremony at the Batesburg-Leesville High School football stadium is straightforward.

The playing of the national anthem. The presentation of the American flag by the Junior ROTC. The offering of a prayer by a student. And then the kickoff.

They've done it this way for generations. And last Friday, the South Carolina school sent a message over its loudspeaker that they're going to keep praying - testing the limits of a recent US Supreme Court ruling that student-led prayer at high school football games violates the Constitution.

Now, school boards across the South are having to reexamine the place of prayer. And some school board members say they are uncertain how to comply with the high court's mandate without banishing morality and religious values from public education.

How these school board members respond will determine whether the decision, involving a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, helps clarify the contentious issue or merely sparks another round of legal battles.

"Religion in schools is one of those issues that is complicated by a number of different factors," says Naomi Gittins, a staff attorney at the National School Boards Association. "I wouldn't be surprised if litigation continued, certainly on the school-prayer issue."

The debate is coming to a head as schools across the country begin their high school football seasons - with or without a student-led prayer.

'Spontaneous prayer...'

In some schools, students and parents are planning to "spontaneously" recite the Lord's Prayer immediately following the national anthem. Such plans have been reported in Asheville, N.C., and in Hattiesburg, Tupelo, and Bogue Chitto, Miss.

Some legal analysts question how such prayer sessions can be termed spontaneous if they are pre-planned.

Other school districts have replaced student-led prayer with a moment of silence or a recitation of a generic sportsmen's creed.

In Batesburg-Leesville, S.C., the school board responded to the high court's ruling by passing a resolution three weeks ago declaring that students enjoy a constitutional right to pray at football games. After further debate, the board passed a second resolution Thursday, dropping any reference to prayer but declaring that students have a right to "speak religiously or otherwise" over the stadium's public-address system prior to games.

And that's exactly what happened Friday night at Batesburg-Leesville's opening game. The student council president delivered a four-sentence prayer over the PA system and received a standing ovation from most fans, parents, and students in attendance.

The action is expected to trigger a lawsuit. Some legal analysts say the high court's decision clearly bars schools from allowing students to lead prayers over a school-operated loudspeaker system.

... versus silent prayer

"If the plan were for students to pray on their own, silently, they can do that," says Rob Boston of Americans United For Separation of Church and State. "But if people are looking for some kind of group prayer that is broadcast over a loudspeaker, that is not going to survive constitutional scrutiny. The Supreme Court is clear on that."

Ralph Kennedy, president of the Batesburg-Leesville school board, disagrees. He says as long as the school maintains a neutral policy, officials are free to turn over the stadium microphone to student speakers. He says students - like all Americans - enjoy a First Amendment right to free speech and religious expression.

And he says the board is prepared to defend its position, in court, if necessary.

In Texas, a Houston lawyer, Kelly Coghlan, is encouraging the state's 1,200 school districts not to abandon student-led prayer policies, but merely to alter them. He says the court's decision leaves some middle ground that would permit students - under certain circumstances - to continue to lead prayers over the school public-address system prior to a football game.

Not everyone agrees with his analysis. Mr. Boston says the high court's opinion leaves no doubt that students may pray individually, but no student has the right to attempt to force an entire stadium full of football fans to pray.

And while not all school boards are happy about the decision, most view it as a broad mandate barring student-led prayer and are complying with it, says Mark Stern of the American Jewish Congress. "You will find some school boards who say, 'To heck with Washington,' but at least so far the reaction seems to be, 'OK, we've run out of options and now we have to comply,' " Mr. Stern says.

Mr. Coghlan counters that the Santa Fe decision leaves room for adoption of a neutral policy, allowing students to pray over a PA system prior to football games.

"The court was careful to say that nothing within the Constitution prevents a student from praying at any time before, during, or after school," Coghlan says. He says that if a school adopts a neutral policy aimed at affording students an opportunity to address the stadium prior to games, the high court would uphold the right of a student to deliver a religious message just as it would uphold the right of a student to deliver a secular message.

"There is nothing wrong with having an absolutely neutral policy which allows for student speakers at school-sponsored events," he says. "I don't want the government criminalizing religious expression by students ... and turning our school officials into prayer police."

Boston sees the issue differently. "Where do people in these communities get the idea that prayer doesn't count unless it is blaring over a loudspeaker?" he says. "You can pray silently, and God will still hear."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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