Public prayer a toss-up in high-school football openers

Monday, August 28, 2000
White Knoll football players Winston Hammond (67) and
T.R. Hagmaler (31) bow heads with other teammates as invocation is given at
Batesburg-Leesville (S.C.) Panther Football Stadium on Aug. 25.

High school football season kicked off in the South last weekend,
prompting attempts by some students, school boards and community leaders to
show their support for public prayer in the face of a recent Supreme Court
decision banning official recognition of game-related religious activities.

In Searcy, Ark., the Searcy School Board ended a tradition of pre-game
prayers over the loudspeaker but agreed to allow K-Life, a nonprofit
interdenominational group, to hold prayers around a stadium flagpole before
each game.

In Batesburg-Leesville, S.C., the local student-body president used a
microphone in the stadium press box to lead fans in prayer after officials of
Lexington School District 3 passed a resolution approving “voluntary”
student-led prayer at football games.

In Hattiesburg, Miss., actor Tom Lester (who played Eb on the 1960s
television show “Green Acres”) led some fans in a pre-game prayer. Other
Mississippi communities witnessed “spontaneous” prayers as local churches
promoted a grassroots campaign to work around the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in
Santa Fe Independent School District v.

That decision — which upset many in the South who felt it showed
judicial hostility to school prayer at the highest level — stated that
prayers recited over public-address systems at high school football games give
the appearance of school endorsement of religion, thus violating the
constitutionally required separation of church and state.

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the high court majority that:
“School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends
the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents that they
are outsiders, not full members of the political community.”

However, Chief Justice William Rehnquist dissented, writing that the
majority’s opinion “bristles with hostility to all things religious in public
life” — an opinion with which many, especially in the South, concur.

The Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Association has called on
students and spectators to recite the Lord’s Prayer following the national
anthem at football games.

“Of course, we know the ACLU will go beserk,” said Donald E. Wildmon,
president of AFA, in a news release. “But on the other hand, there is no way
the Supreme Court can stop this, because it is simply individuals participating
on their own without any leader.”

David Ingebretsen, executive director of the Mississippi ACLU, said he
had heard reports that one school in Mississippi was in direct violation of the
Supreme Court decision last weekend but had not yet verified it.

“If the school is involved, then the actions violate the Supreme
Court’s ruling in Santa Fe,” he said. “If the school provides a platform, such
as a loudspeaker, or if school officials introduce someone else who leads a
prayer, then that is a violation. However, we have maintained all along that
any individual can pray at a football game.”

As for what transpired at Hattiesburg, Ingebretsen said he was going
to speak with some people who were at the game before commenting. “We will be
watching this situation,” he said.

LaVergne Neal, program and development director for the South Carolina
ACLU, says her group “will challenge” the Lexington No. 3 School District
school board’s resolution to allow prayer over the P.A. system at football

“This is in direct violation of the Santa Fe ruling, and we will
challenge it in court if it goes that far,” she said. “Our first step will be
to formally notify the school officials that they are in direct violation of
the First Amendment.”

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