Sept. 3--The battle over religion in public schools has new urgency, as Christian religious groups have launched a "guerrilla prayer" movement in a number of states across the country, many in the deep South.
Over the weekend, students and supporters recited sectarian prayers at football games in towns like Hendersonville, N.C., a community where the police chief openly advertises his Christian faith and recently addressed a mammoth religious rally in nearby Asheville. Associated Press noted that members of several churches who had formed a protest group, "We Still Pray," bowed heads as they were led in devotional prayer by a member of the local Reformation Presbyterian Church.
In Batesburg-Leesville, S.C., the high school student-body president took the microphone in the stadium box and recited a prayer.
In Searcy, Ark., the school board voted to allow a pre-game prayer rally at the local high school stadium prior to the game; and in Hattiesburg, Miss., actor Tom Lester, who played Ed Dawson in the 1960s television program "Green Acres," led another stadium devotional.
The prayer protests are directed at last June's U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe case, which examined a Texas policy permitting students to vote on a "messenger" who would lead a public prayer at high school football games. The case had been brought by two families--one Mormon, the other Roman Catholic--whose identities remain shielded by the court to avoid harassment. They argued that the policy violated the constitutional separation of church and state. Prayer defenders, though, suggested that the invocation should pass legal muster, since the prayer was "student led" and was a form of private religious speech protected under the First Amendment. The high court struck down the school-district policy, and writing for the 6-3 majority in the case, Justice John Paul Stevens noted:
"The delivery of such a message--over the school's public address system by a speaker representing the student body, under the supervision of school faculty, and pursuant to a school policy that explicitly and implicitly encourages public prayer--is not properly characterized as private speech."
With the legal trail exhausted, prayer supporters have turned to a "guerilla" strategy which encourages "spontaneous" devotionals and invocations at school athletic events, usually after the playing of the National Anthem. Encouraged by national and local religious groups as well as ad hoc movements like "We Still Pray," supporters of public prayer say that their new guerilla strategy stays within the parameters of the Supreme Court decision. Critics say that there is little authentic spontaneity, though, in the "spontaneous" prayers, and that they have the effect of excluding non-participants.
With the first weekend of "spontaneous" prayer over, news reports reflect a wide range of reactions. Some public officials, including school administrators, as well as coaches and football players remain cagey about how far they will go in obeying the Supreme Court decision. Gulfport High School head coach Ronnie Cuevas told the Mississippi Sun Herald newspaper that he was "puzzled" by the ruling in the Santa Fe case. "I don't know what's wrong with this country," Cuevas said. "I don't understand why 15 seconds of silence or prayer would bother anyone."
Cuevas, a Roman Catholic, added that he saw a "turnaround" in several players who had been introduced to religion and attended a church service on Friday morning with their fellow athletes.
A coach at Long Beach High School said that his staff and players also supported gridiron prayer, and added: "Ever since prayer was taken out of the schools, violence has increased."
Legal problems could result from a decision by school authorities in Cherokee, N.C., though, after an announcement over the weekend that Christian prayer will be broadcast over the school's public address system prior to a home game. Board Member Kathy Wolfe told the Asheville Citizen-Times newspaper that the prayer, a school tradition, will continue. "We've always done it and we always will," said Wolfe. "It's a sovereignty issue."
The school is operated by the Cherokee Indian tribe; according to the paper, the tribal Office of the Attorney General informed school officials that neither the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Santa Fe case nor the First Amendment of the Constitution apply within tribal boundaries. Teresa McCoy, a member of the Tribal Council, said that the Indians will fight any attempt to stop school prayer.
"Funding or not, I believe the tribe would take a stand and defend public prayer," she said. "I think some things are more powerful and important than a Supreme Court ruling. Prayer is good medicine."
The Citizen-Times noted that most of the tribe's 12,500 members share that sentiment, and that many belong to either Methodist or Baptist denominations. Even more traditional Indian religious groups also support the prayer.
Despite the claims that stadium prayer represents a form of student-initiated free speech or is a "spontaneous" outburst of beneficial public religiosity, evidence shows that the guerrilla prayer campaign is very much a planned affair which has attracted the support of major national organizations. One is the American Family Association, based in Tupelo, Miss., and headed by the Rev. Donald E. Wildmon. AFA is generally noted for its harsh criticism of television programs and popular films, but became involved in the school prayer flap with an August 23 "Action Alert" which began:
"The American Family Association is urging students and spectators to join in reciting the Lord's Prayer at football games during the upcoming season. The association says that this is one way students can exercise their freedom of religion. AFA is encouraging those who desire to participate to simply recite the Lord's Prayer immediately after the national anthem is played...."
"This isn't about legitimate religious exercise or the free speech of students," says Ellen Johnson, the president of American Atheists. "There are outside, off-campus religious groups organizing these protests and undermining any claims that they are student initiated. And there is nothing 'spontaneous' about them since these tactics are planned days, even weeks, in advance."
Johnson added that the real objective of the prayer protests was "to find some way of having prayer identified with civic and public activities, and for the participants to be seen by everyone else engaging in prayer."
"There are 350,000 churches in this country," said Johnson. "These people can pray at home, in their cars, while shopping at the supermarket. This is all about public prayer and public religion."