- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 21, 2000

While many area educators and parents support Monday's Supreme Court ruling extending the ban on school prayer, some students say more religion on campus might mean less violence.

Students should have the freedom to pray, said Bruce Gerlach III, a student of J.E.B. Stuart High School in Fairfax, Va. and president of the Fairfax County Area II Student Advisory Council.

"These are times when students bring guns to schools … we need prayer," he said. "I am a football player, and I pray before each game."

Arlington (Va.) Superintendent of Schools Robert Smith said most parents, teachers and administrators in the county would not want prayer in schools "because of the diverse student population."

"Having prayer in schools immediately raises the issue of whose prayers, what kind of prayers?" he said.

Virginia schools already are struggling with the state's new law giving students a moment of silence.

Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said his organization was "strongly considering" a lawsuit to overturn the law, effective July 1.

The Supreme Court decision "strengthens the foundation for a legal challenge," Mr. Willis said.

Justices on Monday struck down a Santa Fe, Texas, school district policy that allowed a student chosen by classmates to deliver a public invocation before each home football game. A school that gives students the public forum for prayer is effectively sponsoring the message, justices ruled in the 6-3 decision.

Whether that ruling affects Virginia's law, which requires schools to set aside 60 seconds for students to meditate, pray or "engage in any other silent activity," remains to be seen.

Much would hinge on whether a judge felt the moment of silence was a tacit encouragement of prayer.

Attorney General Mark Earley has said schools may tell students they can pray, while the Department of Education has said schools should tell students simply to pause for a moment of silence.

Mr. Earley criticized the Supreme Court ruling, calling it an "unfortunate decision," but added that the ruling should have no effect on Virginia's law.

But many area parents say they support the complete separation of church and state and do not want prayer imposed on their children, either in school or at occasions like sporting events.

"I think the national anthem being played before the games is better because it is less intrusive," said Linda Henderson, an Arlington County parent. "I think there is tremendous diversity in our schools, and each person's values and beliefs and way of expressing themselves should be valued."

"I would be horrified if people in my son's school started praying at school events," said Nicole Burton, a Prince George's County, Md. parent. "Because of the plurality, the safest way is to avoid it altogether."

"Children have plenty of opportunity to pray outside school," said Elizabeth Segall, a Fairfax mother and president of the Annandale PTSA in Fairfax County. "Our community is made up of too many religions and backgrounds, and imposing a certain kind of prayer will make other kids uncomfortable."

Some school officials were surprised by the court ruling but agreed with it.

"I am surprised that the court would do this, but I understand," said Prince George's school board Chairman James Henderson. "If we start having prayer, whose prayer are we going to use? I do like the moment of silence concept, though."

But he added, "if children are allowed to curse without punishment, then it seems to me they should be allowed to pray if they want to."

Other school officials, such as Fairfax County School Board member Rita Thompson, said they were disappointed by the ruling.

"If you don't want to join the prayer, you don't have to," she said. "We hear things all the time we don't particularly like, but we have to be tolerant."

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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