Battle over prayer in schools moves onto the playing fields

Practice faces scrutiny as high court revisits rule

November 21, 1999|By Jay Apperson and Ken Murray | Jay Apperson and Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Soccer players at Howard County's Mount Hebron High School congregate before their matches, and they pray.

The football coach at Baltimore County's Hereford High joins his team in a post-game huddle, where a player gives thanks to God.

At Lake Clifton High, the football coach, who's also a deacon in an East Baltimore church, takes his ministry to the field. He leads his players in prayer both before and after games -- and vows to defy any judge who might try to silence him.

"Trouble will have to come," said coach James Monroe, saying he answers to an authority higher than any court. "I'd never deny God. God will never deny me. It's a chance I have to take."

With the U.S. Supreme Court revisiting the thorny issue of school prayer for the first time in years, practices that have been taken for granted could be scrutinized. Public attention most likely will be drawn to public school athletic fields because the court has agreed to rule on the constitutionality of prayers at games in Texas.

"We all have this view of high school football in Texas as being a religion, so [the court's action] is kind of ironic. But it does have implications beyond the football stadiums in Dallas," said Dwight Sullivan, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. "That's one of the great things about this opinion. It might make people think about stuff they've never thought about before."

The court agreed last week to consider whether students can lead public prayers at high school football games in Santa Fe, Texas, near Houston. But the decision could affect how students pray at games and school events such as graduation ceremonies.

Both sides see opening

Groups on both sides of the issue are looking to gain ground.

"[The justices] have seized the opportunity to set down some guidelines on religious expression at schools," said Jay Alan Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative group that supports school prayer. He said the ruling might extend beyond playing fields to outlaw "censorship" of religious references by students in events such as talent shows.

Similarly, Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Southern Maryland Republican, said a ruling might support contentions that a Calvert County girl should have been allowed to lead a prayer at her high school graduation in May. Encouraged by a group known as the Right to Pray Coalition, which was formed after the dispute, O'Donnell plans to introduce a bill in the next General Assembly to broaden students' right to pray.

On the other side, groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State said the court should establish that prayer has no place in front of "captive audiences" such as public school students who simply want to watch their teams play football. Of those who insist on allowing prayer at such events, organization spokesman Robert Boston said, "I can only conclude that it's an attempt by some religious majority to say, `In your face.' "

The court might be taking on the case to send a broader message, said Michael W. McConnell, a constitutional law professor at the University of Utah.

"One possibility is that although the law is reasonably settled in legal terms," he said, "it's not a very popular result and there's a lot of resistance to it, and the court wants to reaffirm that government-sponsored public prayer is not constitutional."

Routine expression

Around the Baltimore area, religious expression takes place routinely on athletic fields -- some of which appears to violate legal standards.

At Lake Clifton, Monroe infuses prayer not only into games but also into each practice. The prayers often focus on health and continued success. At the start of the season, he takes his team with him to church.

"Prayer is very important for inner-city kids," he said. "They need hope, they need something they can believe in, trust in, [that] God will be there."

Monroe attempts to win souls as well as football games, using words from Psalm 30: "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning."

"I use that quote and tell the kids, `In your life, you'll go through a lot of trials and tribulations, lots of ups and downs. In football, there are lots of trials and tribulations. If you keep looking and praying, your prayers will be answered,' " he said.

In his five years as head coach, Monroe said, no parent or player has complained. All prayer sessions are voluntary, but no one has opted out, he said.

"We don't have that much parent involvement," he said. "That's why I stand there as a father figure. That's why I take the group to church every first of the season, to let them know you can play football and still be part of a church."

Monroe is active at the Garden of Prayer Baptist Church on Homestead Avenue, where his wife, Sheila Monroe, is an associate minister.

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