- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2001

It will take more than a Supreme Court decision to stop prayer at high school football games, so long as the Rev. Curtis Turner has breath in his body.

Last fall, the Georgia pastor led tens of thousands of football fans to join in mass recitations of the Lord's Prayer before high school games, in defiance of a 6-3 Supreme Court ruling in June that found student-organized prayer at school sporting events to be a violation of the First Amendment.

"Everywhere I've been, it's been an overwhelming response," says Mr. Turner, pastor of the New Testament Baptist Church in the Atlanta suburb of Ellenwood, Ga. "We're still a praying nation."

"Appalled" by the Supreme Court decision, Mr. Turner says, he joined the Asheville, N.C.-based "We Still Pray" movement, which advocates returning prayer to America's public life.

"This was just a matter of religious freedom," says Mr. Turner, whose activism has resulted in nationwide media attention, as well as threats of arrest. He says he had "an impression of God to do it."

His first football game appearance, at Jonesboro High School not far from his church, resulted in some 80 percent of the crowd of 3,000 joining in prayer, by his estimate.

After that success, Mr. Turner took his prayer campaign to other Atlanta-area schools. Television stations and national Christian radio talk shows took notice. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called Mr. Turner "Atlanta's lightning rod for a national debate over prayer at school events."

He has taken his prayer campaign as far as Dallas where, Mr. Turner says, he was threatened with arrest outside Texas Stadium. Despite such threats, he says, "20,000 people stood and prayed."

His methods are simple. Mr. Turner and dozens of volunteers distribute to fans entering the stadium cards that read: "Join thousands of other parents and students across the nation who are expressing their approval and their right to pray in the schools and at ballgames. If you are comfortable in doing so, please remain standing after the national anthem and recite the Lord's Prayer, found on the back of this card."

The campaign has drawn opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union and others even though, Mr. Turner says, "There's been no place where I've had 5 percent opposition."

While promoting prayers at games, Mr. Turner has also gathered tens of thousands of signatures on a petition in support of House Joint Resolution 66, which proposes a constitutional amendment to guarantee that "the people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage and traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed."

One of that measure's co-spon-

sors, Rep. Bob Barr, Georgia Republican, says "the courage that [Mr. Turner] exhibited … impressed me greatly." Mr. Barr attended a prayer rally last fall in Haralson County, Ga., organized by Mr. Turner, who was the congressman's guest at the National Prayer Breakfast here in February.

"Millions of Americans feel frustrated that they are not allowed to pray" at school events, says Mr. Barr, a member of the House Judiciary Committee.

"I never had anybody say they're intimidated by prayer or by the Ten Commandments," Mr. Barr says, but some people have "used the First Amendment to strike religion from our public life."

Pre-game prayers customarily delivered over the public-address system by a local clergyman were a decades-old part of Southern high school football tradition and continued long after the Supreme Court's 1962 decision banning prayer in public school classrooms.

Those clergy-led prayers were effectively outlawed in 1989, when the Supreme Court let stand a lower court's ruling against such invocations in a case brought by a high school band member in Douglas County, Ga. Some communities, however, substituted those with student-led prayers in the hope that the difference would make the invocations constitutional a hope that was dashed by last summer's Supreme Court ruling in a Texas case.

Writing for the six-justice majority in that case, Justice John Paul Stevens said that allowing student-led prayer "establishes an improper majoritarian election on religion." In a dissent joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist complained that the majority's decision "bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life."

Mr. Turner's prayer campaign is part of a protest movement that swept across the Bible Belt last fall. Crowds at high school football games from North Carolina to Texas joined in mass recitations of the Lord's Prayer before kickoff.

"We don't want anything new," says Mr. Turner, who plans to continue his campaign this fall. "What we're asking for is to keep what we've had for 200 years our right to pray. That is our heritage."

Heritage is a major emphasis for Mr. Turner, who quotes Benjamin Franklin and cites the Mayflower Compact in support of his position on prayer.

"The Pilgrims came here seeking one thing the freedom to worship Christ," he says.

And, Mr. Turner points out, even politicians in Washington are free to pray.

"If our Congress prays, if our Senate prays, if our president prays why deny that right to high school kids?"

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