Texas town re-thinks football prayer

Tuesday, June 20th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SANTA FE, Texas (AP) — In a state where football and religion are all-consuming, Santa Fe's school district can no longer allow the two to mix under a landmark ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.

Both sides of the debate will be watching this fall to see what, if anything, the Santa Fe Independent School District does to replace the school-prayer policy struck down Monday by the nation's highest court.

``My initial reaction would be, at this point, to eliminate an invocation or message as crafted,'' Superintendent Richard Ownby said, adding that the school board will consult attorneys before considering a response to the ruling.

The 6-3 majority opinion bars students from leading stadium crowds in meditation but could go much further to restrict prayer in public schools, casting doubt on prayer at graduation ceremonies or even moments of silence.

``This is a complete and total victory for the freedom of religion in this country,'' said William Harrell, executive director of the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. ``While some will see it as religion being prohibited in schools, students can voluntarily pray any time they want.''

School-prayer advocates say they're alarmed.

``We're clearly disappointed,'' said Kelly Shackleford, an attorney for the school district and chief counsel for the Texas-based Liberty Legal Institute. ``This is the first case in the history of the country that the courts will censor or gag religious expression of a private citizen.''

The court ruled that a school that gives students the public forum for prayer is effectively sponsoring the message.

``Nothing in the Constitution ... prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during or after the school day. But the religious liberty protected by the Constitution is abridged when the state affirmatively sponsors the particular religious practice of prayer,'' Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court.

The ruling affirmed the 1962 ban on organized prayer in public schools. Some school board members say the court will chill First Amendment rights.

``This district would like to afford free-speech rights to all students, and we feel like students' free-speech rights are being stepped on,'' school board president Denise Cowart said.

The Catholic and Mormon mothers who initially sued the school district in this predominantly Baptist town of 10,000 have remained in the background, their identities sealed by the court. A friend said the women, who still have children in Santa Fe schools, were elated.

''(The board) has made religion almost like back when race was an issue for the schools,'' Debbie Mason said. ``We all should just thank whomever we believe in. They came out with a strong ruling, so all schools across America would understand that you cannot do this.''

Despite the opinion's broad wording, school district attorney Jay Sekulow said some student-led prayer remains possible.

``We still think issues of valedictorian prayer (and others) are open,'' he said.

The issue born in a football stadium about 40 miles south of Houston made its way to Washington not only through the courts, but also through presidential politics.

``I support the constitutionally guaranteed right of all students to express their faith freely and participate in voluntary student-led prayer,'' said Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presumptive GOP candidate.

In Texas' Republican primary election last March, 94 percent of voters approved a nonbinding resolution backing student-initiated prayer at school sporting events.

Vice President Al Gore, Bush's presumptive Democratic opponent, said through an aide that he supported the ruling.

``He feels ... in this case that the prayer was found to be government-sponsored and participation was not truly voluntary,'' Gore spokesman Douglas Hattaway said. ``He does support private prayer in school and at school-related events as long as participation is truly voluntary and ... is suitable within the school environment.''

The 1995 Santa Fe lawsuit initially focused on both football games and graduations. While the Supreme Court did not address prayer at commencement ceremonies, Stevens frequently cited the court's 1992 ban on clergy-led prayers at such events.

After the lawsuit was filed, the policy was changed to let student-elected representatives — no longer called chaplains — give a ``message or invocation.''

Marian Ward, a minister's daughter chosen to deliver the invocation at her class's May 26 graduation, said the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Constitution is too strict.

``It has gone from the word `establishment' to the word `allow,''' said Ward, who won an injunction against the district last year to allow pregame prayers before football home games.

School board members are unsure how much freedom they can give to students appointed to speak in public.

``They've blurred (the line between) government speech and a student's free-speech rights,'' board member John Couch II said.