Limits return to school prayer
The prayer circle formed at midfield, just before Friday night’s kickoff between the Greenbrier Panthers and the Searcy Lions. Boosted over the public school’s loudspeakers, Jayla Johnston’s soft voice filled the stadium. ”In the name of Jesus,” Miss Johnston intoned. ”Our Father, who art in heaven . . . ”
In the stands, teachers, relatives and friends bowed their heads and joined in, swelling the sound of prayer. Judy Jolley, a parent, felt goosebumps, and her eyes glistened with tears. ”I think it’s time for us to turn back to God,” she said afterward. ”We need his blessings desperately right now.”
With the pregame prayers, the Greenbrier Independent School District appeared to defy the most recent Supreme Court ruling banning prayer at school events over a public address system. Dissatisfaction that had been simmering in this Bible-minded hamlet since the court’s June 2000 decision gained new strength after Sept. 11, when leaders from the White House, Congress and the State House publicly turned to prayer.
Debbie Lessard, a mother of two, said: ”Sept. 11 woke a lot of people up. A lot of Christian people. It’s time we speak up.”
In the days after the attacks, public schools joined other civic institutions in an outpouring of prayer, saying that a nation in crisis needed healing and togetherness. The vast majority of public schools soon returned to normal routines, reinstating limits on public expressions of faith. But a number of politicians, communities and religious groups have instead moved to challenge restrictions on school prayer, hewn by courts over the last four decades.
In South Carolina, state legislators are proposing a bill to transform the moment of silence that begins each school day into a moment of prayer, though such moments of prayer were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Wallace v. Jaffree in 1985.
In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, defended his participation in prayers with children at a public school last week, saying he disagreed with the Supreme Court’s ban. School prayer advocates say that students are praying over public address systems at football games throughout Texas, though without the backing of any school board decision such as Greenbrier’s.
In Greenbrier, parents said that since Sept. 11, every game the schools’ teams play away from home had also begun with public prayers.
And Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, vowed to defend any community whose posting of ”God Bless America” faces a court challenge. In California, the American Civil Liberties Union had criticized Breen Elementary School for posting the words on its marquee.
Richard D. Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which supports school prayer, said religious expression in public places has ”taken a quantum leap in the public consciousness” after Sept. 11.
”Post-Sept. 11, the secularists are going to have a harder time making their case,” Mr. Land said. ”I don’t think the court wants to invite massive civil disobedience.”
In truth, however, challenges to court rulings on school prayer over the last six weeks have been scattered and surfaced mostly in the South. People in Greenbrier, where a post-Sept. 11 marquee on the way out of town says simply ”Jesus Wept,” describe their home as ”the center of the Bible Belt.”
Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that over the last six weeks, ”There’s been a trickle of more complaints about inappropriate prayers in school, but the floodgates have not opened.”
Mr. Lynn said he did not believe that courts were about to reverse earlier decisions on prayer, but that new practices pushing the limits of Supreme Court rulings would prove costly to communities forced to defend them in court. ”The Constitution has not been suspended since Sept. 11,” Mr. Lynn said.
The steps that Greenbrier and the South Carolina politicians have taken appear to presume that the September attacks shifted the balance on a question that has divided Americans for decades.
David McClendon, whose son James plays center on the Greenbrier Panthers, said he resented efforts to limit public prayer, and believed that non-Christian minorities should not limit the majority’s expressions of faith.
”This country was built by people who fought and died to make this country free from England, and it was done with a lot of good Christian men,” Mr. McClendon said.
Nor should public schools bar prayers over the intercom system, said Angela Maxfield, an emergency room nurse, because some children would otherwise never be exposed to Jesus. ”There’s a very large number of children who’ve never seen the inside of the church,” she said. Autor: Diana Jean Schemo