Texas pregame ceremony tests boundaries of school prayer

Football field becomes constitutional battle site

students oppose court ban

September 03, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The eyes of Texas -- and many eyes elsewhere -- will be on 17-year-old Marian Ward tonight, when she stands up to say something inspirational before the kickoff of the football game between the Santa Fe Indians and the Crosby Cougars.

Addressing the hometown crowd in Santa Fe, Texas, and perhaps defying a federal court and the local school superintendent, Ward has said she will -- if moved by the right spirit -- say something that could sound like a prayer for God's blessing.

And so, in a small town of about 8,500, the opening game of a high school football season could provide a dramatic new turn in a constitutional fight that could affect public schools across the nation.

Disputes over prayers at public school events are common in many districts and have been so for more than three decades. But the controversy that has been developing in Santa Fe over the past four years has become one of the most prominent.

Even as Marian Ward composes her message for tonight, lawyers are filing documents in the U.S. Supreme Court, where the Santa Fe case is pending. It is the latest attempt by either side in the dispute to persuade the justices to clarify the constitutionality of student-led prayers at public schools.

The Supreme Court ruled seven years ago that it is unconstitutional for school officials to arrange for prayer at graduation. But the court has never decided the separate issue of whether the Constitution also bans student-initiated prayer. And it has said nothing about student-led prayers at sporting events.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in New Orleans ruled against the Santa Fe school district's prayers-at-games policy in February. Any prayer or invocation in any form, the appeals court said, is unconstitutional if said at a school sporting event.

Student-led prayers, it ruled, are allowed only at one school event -- graduation -- and then only if they are not associated with any religion, do not refer to any deity of any faith, and do not seek to persuade others to believe.

"The mere fact that prayers are student-led or student-initiated, or both," the appeals court said, "does not automatically ensure that the prayers" are valid under prior Supreme Court rulings separating government and religion.

Marian Ward, a senior at her school, isn't waiting for the outcome of the case in the Supreme Court.

"She will be standing up to the microphone, and she is going to be giving a solemnizing message," says her attorney, Kelly J. Coghlan.

Ward knows, Coghlan said, that she is taking a risk. The school superintendent, Richard Ownby, was quoted last month as saying that any student who led a prayer at the football game "will be disciplined just as if they had cursed."

Coghlan said that Ownby has "not backed down from that."

In a telephone interview yesterday, the superintendent said that his use of cursing as a comparable violation of school policy was "a terrible example; literally, they are not the same." Under school rules, he said, cursing is a more serious violation than a simple disobedience, as praying would be.

But, tonight, Ownby said, he intends to enforce the requirement imposed by the appeals court that a student "can't pray or refer to a deity." He said Marian Ward "has been instructed" about that, but did not say how she would respond. "She told the newspapers that, if the holy spirit moved her, she would pray," he said.

Ward could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The superintendent's warning of discipline was enough to deter Stephanie Vega, the student who was first chosen by schoolmates to address the crowd before the Indians' home games this season.

Vega, a junior who turned 16 last month, issued a statement that said she had "resigned from giving the solemnizations for the football games. When a student is told by the government that she may say anything except a prayer, and if she does pray, she will be disciplined as if she had cursed, it is just too much pressure."

Vega added: "I do not want to be expelled from school for using the word `God' in a reverent manner."

"This very sweet Catholic girl was run off; she was scared to death," Coghlan, who was also Vega's lawyer, said yesterday. Vega is one of 40 Santa Fe High students who have filed legal papers urging the Supreme Court to allow the game-day prayers.

Ward, who was chosen as the alternate to Vega, is ready to take her place tonight, Coghlan said.

Coghlan said he believes that school districts can find a way to allow student-led prayers without directly contradicting the appeals court's decision. He sent out a packet of advice on the issue to 1,100 districts in Texas recently.

He also notes that the appeals court ruling against sporting-event prayers differs from a decision in July by another court, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in Atlanta.

The 11th Circuit court ruled that the Constitution does not permit "the suppression of student-initiated religious speech" at school, including sports events. It added, however, that the Constitution does not protect a student who "uses the machinery of the state as a vehicle for converting his audience."

Pub Date: 9/03/99

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