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Many Schools Keeping Traditional Prayers at Football Games

October 10, 1992

BENTON, Ark. (AP) _ The Benton Panthers still open home football games with a prayer broadcast over the public address system, a tradition at high schools across the country.

But in some places, that tradition has become an emotional act of defiance since a June ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court cast doubt on the constitutionality of such prayers.

A high school coach in Florence, Ariz., resigned this week after his principal ordered him to stop leading his team in prayer.

″I teach my kids to stand up for what they believe in,″ said Tom Shoemake, whose team was off to a 5-0 start before he stepped down. ″If I didn’t do this, I wouldn’t be an example I want to be with the kids.″

Elk City, Okla., and Lincoln County, Tenn., reinstated pregame prayers after being bombarded with complaints.

″We know about the court ruling, but until it’s contested, we have to do what’s in our hearts,″ said Lincoln County board member Etta Mae Gill.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals barred religious invocations before high school football in Georgia, Alabama and Florida in 1989.

But in many towns - especially in the South and Midwest, the nation’s ″Bible Belt″ - nothing has changed. Places like Russell, Ky.; Ironton, Ohio; and Benton, just south of Little Rock in central Arkansas, still have pregame prayers.

″The board feels and I feel that the community is supportive of prayer before athletic contests,″ said Benton Superintendent Frank Chenault.

But some other districts, including Lynchburg, Va.; Ashland, Ky.; Adrian, Mo.; and Newport, Ark., decided it was prudent to abandon the pregame prayers, angering some citizens.

″Our right to prayer is just as important as those who would oppose it. The majority should rule,″ said Betty Ritter, one of some 300 people who packed a Newport school board meeting to protest the decision.

The board stood firm.

Deming, N.M., last month reinstituted invocations at school-sponsored events, only to reverse itself after learning its insurance carrier would not defend the board against lawsuits brought over the prayers.

One Tennessee high school has substituted a moment of silence for the pregame prayer. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that state-mandated classroom prayer is unconstitutional, it and other federal and state courts have wrestled with the involvement of government-funded institutions in religious activities.

In its June decision, the Supreme Court barred school-sponsored prayers at graduation ceremonies. Some legal experts interpret the ruling to apply to any school-sponsored event, including football.

″For the most part, we’re advising it’s probably prohibited,″ said Naomi Gittins, a staff attorney for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va.

The American Civil Liberties Union agrees.

″It reaffirmed that school officials could not prescribe a proper time, place or manner of prayer,″ said Robert Peck, legislative counsel for the ACLU in Washington.

Brad Jacob, executive director of the Annandale, Va.-based Christian Legal Society, however, said pregame prayers probably are constitutional under the First Amendment ban on state-established religion if students give the prayers or arrange for them.

The law is less clear, he said, if school officials arrange for prayers.

Radio stations in some towns have tried to get around the 11th Circuit’s ruling by broadcasting prayers just before game time and encouraging spectators to bring along portable radios.

Some say such unofficial prayers may be the only way around the Supreme Court ruling.

″Our interpretation is that school-endorsed prayer is unconstitutional,″ said Roger Jones, assistant superintendent in Lynchburg. ″If a group of students wants to pray, that’s up to them.″

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