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September 15, 1999






Football prayer: Punt, pass or kick?
___By Mark Wingfield
___Managing Editor
___First the Santa Fe Independent School District got sued for allowing prayer over the public address system at high school football games. Now it's being sued for not allowing prayer over the public-address system at high school football games.
___Such is the conflicted state of affairs facing high school administrators across Texas this fall, thanks in part to a ruling by the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last March.
___That ruling, based on a case out of the Santa Fe school district, near Galveston, said public schools may not allow pre-game prayers to be said over the public address systems at high school sporting events. To allow school-sponsored prayers would violate the U.S. Constitution's ban on an establishment of religion, the court said.
___With the football season in full swing across Texas now, the impact of the March 1 court ruling is being felt by coaches, principals, players and concerned Christians. Across the state, school boards have held debates on how to comply with the ruling.
___In a majority of districts, the solution has been to call for a moment of silence at the beginning of each game, said Shellie Hoffman, director of legal services for the Texas Association of School Boards.
___Some larger, urban school districts stopped offering public prayers before football games years ago, but the practice has remained pervasive in most Texas districts, Hoffman said.
___"We continue to advise school districts to comply with the 5th Circuit ruling," she explained. "My reading of the 5th Circuit ruling prohibits school-sponsored or -sanctioned prayer at school events, including football games. ... We have advised school districts that we believe a moment of silence could pass constitutional review by the 5th Circuit, and at this point the majority of districts I talk to have gone to a moment of silence."
___Even if prayer isn't on the official agenda, schools that continue to give students a microphone before football games are at risk of being sued if the student offers a prayer anyway or is warned not to pray, Hoffman said. "If they don't give a child a microphone, the risk is minimal."
___The 5th Circuit ruling was the culmination of a complaint lodged by two parents against the Santa Fe school district. The parents asserted the school-sponsored prayers being offered over the public address system before football games intruded upon their constitutional rights not to be forced to listen to such prayers. They also sued to stop prayers at graduation.
___The appeals court agreed with the argument against prayer at sporting events, but not with the argument against graduation prayers. Commencement ceremonies may rightly be "solemnized" by the offering of student-initiated, student-led, non-proselytizing prayers, the court said.
___Many Texans have argued that high school football games are every bit as solemn an occasion as graduation ceremonies. And some First Amendment scholars have said the court division of the question only caused more confusion in an already confused arena.
___"People are confused because the 5th Circuit has made decisions about what kinds of prayers are appropriate official prayers and what kinds of prayers are not appropriate official prayers," said Weston Ware, director of citizenship education with the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission.
___Ware believes the court made the wrong decision by saying certain kinds of prayers are acceptable at some school-sponsored events but not others.
___The confusion has been paramount in the Santa Fe district, where 17-year-old Marian Ward offered a prayer over the public address system to kick off Santa Fe High School's season opener against Crosby High School Sept. 3.
___Just hours before the game, U.S. District Judge Sim Lake of Houston issued a temporary restraining order barring school officials from punishing Ward if she led the prayer. The student had been elected by her classmates to deliver "inspirational remarks" before the game.
___On Tuesday of that week, Ward had been warned by school district officials that she could not offer a prayer, blessing, invocation or reference to a deity in her remarks. Violation of these guidelines, imposed in reaction to the 5th Circuit's March ruling, would be cause for suspension, she was told.
___Houston attorney Kelly Coghlan, representing Ward, filed suit against the district on Thursday of that week, arguing the threats made against Ward violated her right to free speech.
___The district judge agreed, declaring the school district's new guidelines to "clearly prefer atheism over any religious faith."
___While this presented a temporary victory for those who want to continue the tradition of public prayers before Santa Fe High football games, the issue is far from settled, advised Hoffman. "It's still evolving."
___In the meantime, Texas Baptists would be well-advised to put themselves in the place of the religious minorities in their communities and treat them the way they would like to be treated themselves, Ware said.
___"The thing most people miss in this is that prayer is always fine as long as it's our prayer," he said. "The Bill of Rights does not protect majority-rule prayer. What the Bill of Rights does is protect the rights of every individual to exercise and practice his faith, but not at the expense of anyone else."
___This does not conflict with the Bible's teachings, he said.
___"Jesus basically taught prayer to be a private matter, to be done in the closet, not to be done on the street corner, not to be heard and seen of men. And the prayers he honored seemed to be those kinds of prayers, rather than official 'religious' prayers."
___And Baptists should remember that all students can pray on their own whenever and wherever they choose, as can parents and other spectators sitting in the stands at football games.
___In his view, those individual prayers are more effective and meaningful than the generic prayers at most football games.
___"It's better for the children to be prayed with by their parents at breakfast than to sit with their parents at a football game at night and hear somebody's prayer on the loudspeaker," he said.

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