- The Washington Times - Monday, August 28, 2000

ATLANTA Students and grass-roots conservative groups across the Bible Belt stood up over the weekend and made a defiant statement to the U.S. Supreme Court: They plan to pray at high school football games.
The battle lines were drawn, from the Carolinas across to Texas, with organized efforts to challenge the Supreme Court's ruling in June prohibiting student-led prayer at games and assemblies sanctioned by public schools.
Incidents were reported, with various levels of participation, at scores of high school football games around the South and are likely to increase as word spreads.
In South Carolina, the Batesburg-Leesville High School's student body president took the microphone in the stadium press box and said a prayer as football fans stood silently. The ACLU threatened to sue to stop the practice.
In Hendersonville, N.C., Terry Schultz, a member of Reformation Presbyterian Church, led a prayer at a Hendersonville High School football game. Several members of other churches, who formed a protest group called We Still Pray, participated.
In Texas, an organization called No Pray, No Play is urging a recitation of the Lord's Prayer before football games this fall, and it has been backed by pastors around the state who are organizing prayers for next week's games.
In Searcy, Ark., members of the school board voted to let a nonprofit interdenominational group hold prayers around a stadium flag pole before games.
It all started Friday in Hattiesburg, Miss., with a few students holding hands in the bleachers and saying "Our Father who art in Heaven." By the time they got to "deliver us from evil," most of the crowd of 4,500 was standing, proudly reciting the Lord's Prayer.
School officials carefully stayed out of the way in order not to violate the court's decision. Handbills had been distributed by a Christian ministry urging people to pray just before the game, but no loudspeaker was used, and there was no official leader.
"Just because the government shut down the prayers on the intercom doesn't mean they can stop us from praying silently or just starting a prayer," said Savannah Spencer, an eighth-grade clarinet player who prayed with most of the school band.
In Georgia, high school football starts in earnest this week, but there were no reports of prayer rallies at the handful of games that got an early jump on competition this weekend.
At North Hall High School in Gainesville, Ga., a public moment of silence was held instead of a prayer on Friday night.
Christian Coalition of Georgia Chairwoman Sadie Fields said Saturday that she has been encouraging the idea of "spontaneous" prayer at high school football games this fall, but she did not know of any organized plans.
In a Christian Coalition church bulletin insert, she recently wrote that the Supreme Court's decision was "as classic an example of tyranny as this nation has ever experienced." She encouraged church members to "express their faith by reciting the Lord's Prayer."
In a Texas case brought by two families, one Catholic and one Mormon, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled illegal any school involvement including the use of the stadium public address system, a speaker representing students or any direct supervision or approval by the faculty that explicitly or implicitly encourages prayer.
The ruling echoed an 11-year-old Georgia appeals court ban in a case brought by a Douglas County High School band member. After that decision, some Georgia school systems publicly announced that they would disregard it.
In the case of prayer, school activities are treated differently than some other publicly funded activities. For instance, members of the Georgia General Assembly start each day of their legislative session with a sermon and prayer, usually by a Protestant minister.
Still, all summer, a loosely knit coalition of conservative organizations and religious denominations have tried to find ways to legally maintain prayer at games.
The solution they hit on was a recitation of the Lord's Prayer, immediately after the National Anthem, by students and parents without the involvement of school officials.
The Georgia Christian Coalition chairwoman called praying at games a "kind of civil disobedience."
"I think you are going to see more and more spontaneous kinds of rising up against those governmental bodies who are attacking the community of faith," she said. "It is a true infringement on the rights of Christians to display their faith."
Supporters of pre-game prayers are finding some creative ways to try to get around the court ban.
In Forest City, N.C., for instance, a radio station is allowing a pastor to say a prayer at the beginning of high school football broadcasts, and is urging fans at the game to turn up their radios during the prayer.
But the efforts may force school systems into court again.
Steven Shapiro, the national legal director of the ACLU in New York, said if a school is not involved in the pre-game prayer, it might be protected free speech, although he is concerned about its presence at a school event.
"It's a complicated legal question, but one of the things we have learned over years is that school officials are rarely uninvolved at their own events, rarely passive observers," he said. "School officials don't like to relinquish control."
Walter Dellinger, a constitutional scholar at Duke University Law School and former solicitor general of the United States, said prayer could pass muster only if it was truly private and independent of school authority.
"It strikes me as unfortunate that football games can be used as occasions for prayer, the effect of which is to make some students feel like religious strangers at their own public schools," he said. "But as long as it is a product of private decisions by individuals or groups, it doesn't violate the Constitution."
At two high schools in Hattiesburg, Miss., school principals said they had been informed beforehand by organizers that prayer would be said at Friday's game.
"It's going to take a while to catch on, like anything else, but I think it's going to grow pretty big," said John Simpson, the principal of Hattiesburg High School, who prayed. "Most of the students and parents support this. They think the Supreme Court went too far. I would love to be in the middle of it, but I'm not going to violate the law. So I'm glad the kids are doing it."
Not everyone was pleased by the nature of the prayer, however.
Matthew Krell, who is Jewish and a drum major in the band at Hattiesburg High, wished organizers had not chosen such a well-known Christian prayer.
"I'm not against prayer, but it shouldn't be one specific to a single religion," he said. "If they ever really got organized, I guess I'd just have to say the Sabbath prayer it's Friday night, you know."

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