Schools Bow Heads in Defiance ; Prayer Still Kicks off Football Games, despite Supreme Court Ruling

Article excerpt

The pre-game ceremony at the Batesburg-Leesville High School football stadium is straightforward.

The playing of the national anthem. The presentation of the American flag by the Junior ROTC. The offering of a prayer by a student. And then the kickoff.

They've done it this way for generations. And last Friday, the South Carolina school sent a message over its loudspeaker that they're going to keep praying - testing the limits of a recent US Supreme Court ruling that student-led prayer at high school football games violates the Constitution.

Now, school boards across the South are having to reexamine the place of prayer. And some school board members say they are uncertain how to comply with the high court's mandate without banishing morality and religious values from public education.

How these school board members respond will determine whether the decision, involving a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, helps clarify the contentious issue or merely sparks another round of legal battles.

"Religion in schools is one of those issues that is complicated by a number of different factors," says Naomi Gittins, a staff attorney at the National School Boards Association. "I wouldn't be surprised if litigation continued, certainly on the school-prayer issue."

The debate is coming to a head as schools across the country begin their high school football seasons - with or without a student- led prayer.

'Spontaneous prayer...'

In some schools, students and parents are planning to "spontaneously" recite the Lord's Prayer immediately following the national anthem. Such plans have been reported in Asheville, N.C., and in Hattiesburg, Tupelo, and Bogue Chitto, Miss.

Some legal analysts question how such prayer sessions can be termed spontaneous if they are pre-planned.

Other school districts have replaced student-led prayer with a moment of silence or a recitation of a generic sportsmen's creed.

In Batesburg-Leesville, S.C., the school board responded to the high court's ruling by passing a resolution three weeks ago declaring that students enjoy a constitutional right to pray at football games. After further debate, the board passed a second resolution Thursday, dropping any reference to prayer but declaring that students have a right to "speak religiously or otherwise" over the stadium's public-address system prior to games.

And that's exactly what happened Friday night at Batesburg- Leesville's opening game. The student council president delivered a four-sentence prayer over the PA system and received a standing ovation from most fans, parents, and students in attendance.

The action is expected to trigger a lawsuit. Some legal analysts say the high court's decision clearly bars schools from allowing students to lead prayers over a school-operated loudspeaker system.

... versus silent prayer

"If the plan were for students to pray on their own, silently, they can do that," says Rob Boston of Americans United For Separation of Church and State. …