Justices to hear appeal on student-led prayers

High court to decide whether devotions go with Texas football

March 27, 2000|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The personal crusade of a Texas teen-ager to bring God back into the schools -- starting with public prayer at football games -- faces an ultimate reckoning this week in the Supreme Court.

Marian Ward, a high school senior who believes that "our schools need God more than ever," has emerged as the most prominent figure in a school prayer dispute that is reaching the court from the small Texas town of Santa Fe.

On Wednesday, the court will hear an appeal by the Santa Fe school district, marking the justices' first review of school prayer in eight years. The court has never upheld the recitation of religious devotions in public schools during school or at school-sponsored events.

Out of that case will come the court's first ruling on school prayers composed and recited by students, and not arranged or promoted by school officials. A ruling that allows student prayer at football games could open other school settings to such devotions.

But the Santa Fe case before the justices is only the most visible sign that the conflict over religion and the schools is heating up again.

The court will soon issue a major ruling in a Louisiana case that will define the constitutional limits on government financial aid to parochial schools, with probable implications for parents using government vouchers for private tuition.

The campaign by religious conservatives to post the Ten Commandments in government buildings, including public schools, is spreading. The high court will likely be asked to relax its 1980 ruling that barred the display of the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms.

Renewing moral values

"What generates most of this is the perception that we are in a virtual moral free-fall and have to do something to re-establish moral values," said Derek H. Davis, a Baylor University professor specializing in church-government studies. "A lot of people blame the Supreme Court for a lot of this."

Some, condemning prior court rulings against prayer and aid to parochial schools, have concluded that there is "too much secularity," Davis said, and that society must be reinvigorated with "a new dose of spirituality."

This strategy begins, Davis said, with the idea of "invigorating the moral lives of students," mainly by encouraging prayer and other religious expression. He said recent shootings in public schools have stirred interest in students' values.

In the Santa Fe case, Davis has written a brief opposing student-led prayer, on behalf of Baptist and Seventh-Day Adventist groups and his church-state studies institute at Baylor in Waco.

`Spurred by Columbine'

Mathew D. Staver, president and general counsel for Liberty Counsel, a conservative legal advocacy group, said there has been a trend toward "renewed calls for religious teaching and values in the public schools."

He contended that this was "spurred on by Columbine" -- the massacre of students at a high school in Littleton, Colo., last April. "People have looked at that as indicating that something's wrong, something has not worked, and we are reaping tragedies from this."

Staver filed a brief in the Santa Fe case for his group, supporting student prayer.

Football and prayer

Whatever has caused the new wave of support for returning religion to public schools, it seems clear that prayer arouses emotional reactions on both sides.

In Texas, many are deeply disturbed by threats to take away prayer at school football games.

"Separating prayer from football is anathema down here," Davis said. "Friday night football is a staple of our culture; there's something very sacred about football in Texas, and about this connection between football and prayer. It is a natural to attach a religious expression to football."

But that view was contradicted by a federal appeals court last year. It ruled in the Santa Fe case that prayers of all kinds are barred from football games and all other public school events, except graduation ceremonies.

Santa Fe High

Marian Ward was prepared to defy the appeals court last fall. When football season opened at Santa Fe High, she was chosen by classmates to lead prayer at the games. At the last minute, a federal judge gave her permission to lead a prayer, and she led the stadium crowd, heads bowed.

"I have chosen to solemnize this game. And if you want to participate, bow your heads and give thanks to the Lord.

"Lord, thank you for this evening. Thank you for all the prayers that were lifted up this week for me. I pray that you watch over each and every person here tonight, especially those involved in the game. Just be with the fans. And just be with each and every one of us as we go home.

"In Jesus' name I pray. Amen."

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