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Praying before playing

National | Defying school officials but supported by the governor and the U.S. House, Texas students continue tradition of prayer before football games

Issue: "Ken Starr: An honest cop," Nov. 13, 1999

in Stephenville, Tex. - Hidden from Dallas super-malls by more than 120 miles of windy hills and wind-swept fields, residents of Stephenville, Tex., boast of a different claim to fame-the Yellow Jackets high-school football team. And with good reason. Defending its No. 1 class 4A ranking, the undefeated team under Friday-night lights provides a welcome diversion from this farming town's two-year drought. Last month, on a typical football evening in Stephenville, thousands packed Tarleton Memorial Stadium to watch the Yellow Jackets take on Cleburne. Pony-tailed girls flirted with boys in baseball caps as cannons from a local college's ROTC unit fired every time Stephenville's team scored. The artillerymen were busy: Stephenville, with 686 yards of total offense, pounded Cleburne 54-31. But that evening, 17-year-old Alan Ward and his buddies-Joel Allen, 16, and twins Milton and Matt Horner , 17-had their minds on another matter: Can Stephenville students on school property initiate pre-game prayer? As junior class president, Alan had eagerly anticipated giving the opening prayer before the first Yellow Jackets home game on Aug. 27. But at 10:00 a.m. that morning, school authorities had informed him that, for the first time in decades, there would be no prayer. Disappointed but undeterred, Alan and his friends turned to creative options: Instead of using the stadium sound system, they led a crowd of 4,000 in prayer through cheerleading megaphones. At the next home game, they brought a donated sound system onto the track for a more amplified pre-game prayer. They tried to do the same thing at Stephenville's third home game, but an electrical outlet fueling their speaker system mysteriously switched off moments before prayer began. Things were worse on the night of the otherwise glorious victory over Cleburne. Before the game, school officials restricted access to the track and forbade the use of privately owned amplifiers there. As gold and blue football flags rustled overhead and "spirit-can" rattles filled the air, Alan and other students stood in front of a pickup truck loaded with sound equipment and anxiously discussed whether or not to defy authorities-this time with an electrical generator not dependent upon stadium power. "Let's just pray about it," said one. And with bowed heads, they chose humility over rebellion. Leaving the equipment behind, Alan passed a police-guarded barricade and requested permission to lead 200 students across the track for a speakerless prayer behind the goalpost. The principal shook his head no, and the 200 students instead shuffled silently outside the stadium. Holding hands around the flagpoles behind the stadium fence, they prayed quietly as boisterous fight songs bantered back and forth inside. "How tragic and how sad to go out of your way to stop a good thing," said Alan's father as he watched from the sidelines. Alan said, "If this was something we had never done and suddenly all the controversy came because we just started it, that would be different. But there's always been prayer [before football games]. God's always been included." Pre-game prayer has long been as much a part of Texas football as high-school bands and cheerleaders, but it suddenly became controversial throughout the Lone Star State after the U.S. 5th Circuit Appeals Court's Doe vs. Santa Fe Independent School District ruling earlier this year. By a 2-1 vote, the court outlawed prayer over loudspeakers before high-school football games, as well as the mention of any deity at other school ceremonies. "Today, for the first time in the court's history, the majority expressly exerts control over the content of its citizens' prayer," said Judge E. Grady Jolly in a dissenting opinion. The Santa Fe school district, 35 miles southeast of Houston, fought back with an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to decide within two months whether to review the case. Last week the U.S. House of Representatives weighed in. By a voice vote, the House approved a resolution urging the high court to rule that pre-game prayer at public schools is constitutional. Santa Fe students already had taken the initiative, voting (with permission of school officials) to have a "pre-game message," and selecting 17-year-old Marian Ward (no relation to Stephenville's Alan Ward) to give it. But conflict emerged. A member of the National Honor Society and a Christian club officer, Marian listened with dismay as school officials warned her not to include the name of Jesus in her message. She responded, "Religious speech and secular speech should be equal." Rather than agree to religious speech being discriminated against, Marian retained the pro bono services of Houston attorney Kelly Coghlan and sued the school district. Based on previous Supreme Court rulings, Mr. Coghlan argued that prohibitions against "proselytizing prayers" did not apply in Marian's case since her message was student initiated, not government led. Houston federal district judge Sim Lake agreed and issued a preliminary injunction in Ward vs. Santa Fe Independent School District, allowing Miss Ward to continue prayers from the press box for the rest of the season. "Government cannot discriminate against speech because of the viewpoint expressed by the speaker," said Judge Lake, adding that "a school policy prohibiting prayer amounts to state sponsorship of atheism." That position received support from Gov. Bush, who signed a friend-of-the-court brief in favor of pre-game prayer. But in the aftermath of the Santa Fe rulings-one forbidding government-required prayer, the other forbidding government censorship-Texas school officials find themselves forced to walk a shaky tightrope. A fall from either side could result in lawsuits. Mr. Coghlan insists that schools can keep their balance if they "learn how to maintain governmental neutrality." He suggests removing words like "prayer," "invocation," and "benediction" from school policies and replacing them with the words "solemnization" or "student message." Then it's up to the students whether to make the "message" a prayer. Since the school is neither encouraging nor discouraging prayer, such messages are constitutional, Mr. Coghlan argues. In August, he mailed an explanation of his neutrality strategy to all of the more than 1,300 Texas school districts. But some districts would rather play further from the fire and avoid the risk of litigation costs like those run up by Santa Fe-now at $200,000 and counting. Mr. Coghlan also faces stiff competition from high-powered groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB), both of which sent letters to school districts warning of possible litigation. "School districts that continue to allow school-sponsored prayer at football games are taking significant legal risks," said the TASB letter. "Individual trustees and school-district employees could face similar penalties for allowing the practice-immunity would not be available." Meanwhile, Marian is continuing to pray before Santa Fe home games. She is opposed by fellow student Amanda Bruce, who joined about 50 adults and one other student in protesting Marian's prayer before the second Santa Fe home game. "She is discriminating against everybody who doesn't believe in Jesus and she's violating their constitutional rights," Amanda said. "I'm not really sure what right I've violated," Marian, who shares an English class with Amanda, responded. "The Constitution never said everybody is going to be comfortable and like what's said." In Stephenville, Alan Ward and his three friends feel the same way. Sitting in a sandwich shop drinking nine-cent root beers on a Friday night, they seem no different than most other adolescents. They talk about post-game activities and high-five friends walking past. But mention the word "prayer" and all joviality stops. "Okay guys, this is serious," says Alan. "We told the principal that now was our time to stand up for God and if the school was to be sued, couldn't God, who is in charge of every dollar, pay for that and bless us even more?" "This has brought revival in our community," says Joel Allen, describing how 2,000 football fans donned bright yellow T-shirts with the words "I pray before I play" scrawled across the front. "Before we just had a short invocation right before the game that was no big deal. Now we have 200 students behind us and people are starting to think about who this Jesus guy is."

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