Praying in public: part of coping, or defiant act?

At every home game since Sept. 11, Greenbrier High students and parents gather before kickoff under the glaring football-field lights.

As a student steps up to the microphone, all bow their heads and join in the Lord's Prayer, which crackles over the loudspeakers.

The prayer comes with the blessing of the Greenbrier, Ark., School Board, the encouragement of the state's governor, and in defiance of the US Supreme Court, which last year banned such pregame prayer.

It is the latest - and perhaps the boldest - example of just how pervasive public prayer has become since the day jetliners tore through steel, concrete, and the nation's psyche.

For the most part, officials from East Troy, Wis., to Ringgold, Ga., have made no apologies for their decisions, which they say brought healing to their grieving communities. And after the initial escalation of prayer vigils and hymn sings, majority have quietly returned to their policies of limiting religious expression in public settings.

But, particularly in the South, some politicians, religious groups, and school superintendents believe that the wall between church and state should be lowered permanently, and see a fresh opportunity to do so in the wake of the country's search for faith in the days following the attacks.

Civil libertarians - determined to preserve restrictions carved out by courts over the past 40 years - argue that there has been no real shift in the public's views on prayer, and that these new challenges to the First Amendment come from the same cast of characters.

"It is a continuation of 40 years of defiance by the same players who have never accepted these views," says Douglas Laycock, a church-state scholar at the University of Texas at Austin.

But both sides agree that the efforts to give prayer a more public presence have accelerated in the past six weeks.

In Texas, for instance, Gov. Rick Perry (R) prayed with a group of middle-schoolers during an assembly just last week. His statement to the Austin American-Statesman that he wants to make legalizing school prayer a campaign issue has touched off a furor of debate on both sides.

Spokeswoman Kathy Walt says Governor Perry has long believed that prayer should be allowed in public schools and that, since the Sept. 11 attacks, he has noticed a greater tendency by Americans to want to pray together in public.

Indeed, religion has seeped into every crevice of American life in recent weeks. People are joining Internet prayer circles in record numbers, sales of spiritual books are at an all-time high, and although church pews are no longer stuffed to overflowing, attendance at Sunday worship is still higher than usual.

But it doesn't stop there. Local leaders are erecting the Ten Commandments in public places. Moments of silence are being replaced by moments of prayer in town halls and classrooms. Even President Bush called for a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance the Friday after the attack.

"Leaders seem to equate patriotism with religion and religion with patriotism, when, in fact, they are two distinct things," says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "The thing is, in this time of crisis - more than ever - we need to protect the guarantees of the Constitution."

But while school-sponsored prayer has been struck down repeatedly by the court, the issue is murkier within government, where there has never been a clear ruling. Across the country, many city councils, state legislatures, even Congress open their meetings with a prayer.

So it comes as no surprise to many that local officials are also pushing the limits.

The city of Ringgold, Ga., for example, is one of the many cities that have brought Christianity into city hall since Sept. 11.

Three public buildings are now adorned with framed copies of the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments. Another empty frame hangs nearby, "for those who believe in nothing."

While Mr. Lynn agrees that religion is beginning to creep back into schools and local government, he's not alarmed. In fact, he's surprised people have been so restrained.

In the cases that come to his organization's attention, he says: "We are reminding people of goodwill that they've done some things wrong. Sometimes people just make mistakes."

Further, says Lynn, many of the incidents have been one-time events. Usually, the courts want to see a pattern before they take a case.

But some of his fellow civil libertarians are not so sanguine that these actions will fade away.

"You only have to look at history, during times of war, to see how religion attempts to move in on government," says Anne Nicol Gaylor, president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis. "And I see this as one of those times."

She says she has been receiving plenty of hate mail in recent weeks. One such example: "Read your [expletive deleted] money. In GOD we trust. If you really don't believe it, don't spend it and get [expletive deleted] out of here and start your own country."

Ms. Gaylor points out that "In God We Trust" was added to paper money and "Under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in the mid-1950s during the McCarthy anti-Communist hearings.

She sees the country entering a similar era. "There certainly is religious hysteria in the country right now."

Her group recently complained to officials about a "God Bless America" sign on an elementary school in East Troy, Wis. School officials removed it, but it was quickly restored after much protest by the community.

And in Greenbrier, praying at football games so far has the support of a wide section of the community, school board officials say. The board endorsed a resolution allowing "student-led, student-initiated prayer" at school events after encouragement by Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to students to "turn to their faith and pray."

Governor Huckabee has refused to comment on the Greenbrier situation, but the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has plenty to say.

"If that's not state-endorsed religion, I don't know what is," says executive director Rita Sklar. "You cannot blatantly ignore the US Supreme Court."

But the community of Greenbrier, which touts itself as the buckle on the Bible Belt, says its decision doesn't violate the US Constitution. "We are comfortable with what we have done," says Superintendent Mike Mertens. "The community is behind us."

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