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Archive for Saturday, August 26, 2000

Schools hold prayers despite Supreme Court ruling

August 26, 2000

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— On a sweltering August night, football fans in the small town of Batesburg-Leesville stood quietly, many with their heads bowed, while the student body president said a prayer over the school's public address system. Then they cheered.

Similar scenes played out on other fields across the country Friday as the first high school football games of the season began under a two-month-old Supreme Court ruling that declared school-sponsored prayer at sporting events a violation of students' constitutional rights.

In Searcy, Ark., members of the school board voted to let a nonprofit interdenominational group hold prayers around a stadium flag pole before high school games. Actor Tom Lester, who played Eb Dawson on the 1960s television show "Green Acres," led a prayer at a game in Hattiesburg, Miss.

"We do what the law says. We don't control what our fans do," said Joe Howell, principal at Pelahatchie High School, where students had planned a "spontaneous" pre-game prayer Friday but decided to keep it silent in the face of television news cameras.

Legal scholars warned that some districts could be opening themselves up to legal challenges by allowing the prayers.

Two students already have called the American Civil Liberties Union's South Carolina branch to express concern about the "voluntary" prayer before the Batesburg-Leesville game, said LaVerne Neal, executive director of the group.

The Supreme Court's ruling came in a Texas case brought by two families, one Catholic and one Mormon, who challenged a school policy of letting students elect someone to lead the benediction.

The court, which ruled the district's policy of allowing such student-led prayers violated the constitutionally required separation of government and church, wrote: "Nothing in the Constitution ... prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during or after the school day. But the religious liberty protected by the Constitution is abridged when the state affirmatively sponsors the particular religious practice of prayer."

For Lexington School District 3, the key word in allowing prayers was "voluntary." School board members said they believe students stepping up to pray on their own even over the school's public address system won't run afoul of the court's ruling.

Three students signed up to speak at the Batesburg-Leesville game Friday night, and student body President Kimi Boozer said the prayer before kickoff. Each week that the school has a home game, others will be able to sign up to speak, she said.

No one visibly protested the prayer Friday night, but the crowd had mixed feelings about possibly breaking the law.

"My heart's for it," said Olins Hooks, "but I think a moment of silence is just as effective."

U.S. Rep. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., said earlier he's disappointed that schools have to give up their traditions.

"A prayer at a high school football game asking that the players on the field not get hurt and the fans get home safely is in no way the establishment of religion by the government," Graham said. "In my view, the Supreme Court set a terrible precedent."

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