Federal judge expands order allowing prayer at high school football games

Monday, October 11, 1999

Santa Fe High S...
Santa Fe High School senior Marian Ward, 18, delivers prayer before football game against Texas City on Oct. 8 in Santa Fe, Texas. At left: Gary Causey, Santa Fe High School principal.

Despite a federal appeals court decision banning organized prayer at public high school football games, a student in Texas has received a lower court’s order permitting her to lead prayers before the season’s remaining games.

In early September, U.S. District Judge Sim Lake issued a temporary order barring Santa Fe High School officials from suspending 17-year-old Marian Lynn Ward for leading a Christian prayer over the school’s public address system at a football game.

School officials had warned Ward she would be punished for using the school’s intercom to lead prayer because of a ruling issued last February by a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. On Oct. 7, Lake expanded his order to allow Ward to continue leading prayer at Santa Fe football games for the remainder of the season.

The 5th Circuit in Doe v. Santa Fe Independent School District ruled that the school’s policy allowing students to lead prayers at high school football games violated the separation of church and state.

“Prayers that a school merely permits will still be delivered to a government-organized audience, by means of government-owned appliances and equipment, on government-controlled property, at a government-sponsored event, thereby clearly raising substantial establishment clause concerns,” Judge Jacques L.Wiener Jr. wrote for the panel.

From left, Rich...
From left, Richard Chancey, Sean Oittinen, and Tom Crowley debate Robert Lee, right, a youth pastor from Gulf Coast Four Square Church, on Oct. 8 over prayer before football game issue outside Santa Fe High School stadium in Santa Fe, Texas.

Lake’s protective order called Santa Fe’s policy of barring organized prayer before football games hostile toward religion.

At a home football game on Oct. 8, a group of about 40 Santa Fe parents and students protested Lake’s order, The Galveston County Daily News reported.

“We’ve got to show, at least, that there are people in the community who respect the First Amendment and don’t want interference from the religious right,” said Will Ellsworth, a Houston resident who organized the protest.

Ellsworth said he was prompted to protest after the Santa Fe superintendent agreed not to punish Ward. “Superintendent Richard Ownby has allowed the illegal practice to continue,” Ellsworth said. “Breaking the law and supporting the hostile encounters to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is not an appropriate behavior for those in a position of authority to emit in front of the susceptible teens under that authority.”

Ward’s attorney, Kelly Coughlan, has attacked the Santa Fe policy and the 5th Circuit ruling as hostile toward students’ free-speech rights.

The 5th Circuit ruling, which has been appealed to the full court, found that high school football games are “hardly the sober type of annual event that can be appropriately solemnized with prayer.”

“Regardless of whether the prayers are selected by vote or spontaneously initiated at these frequently-recurring, informal, school-sponsored events, school officials are present and have the authority to stop the prayers,” the court wrote.