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Christian organizers finding way around Supreme Court ruling

Posted: Friday, August 25, 2000

BOGUE CHITTO, Miss. -- Wide receiver Scott Edwards says high school football and prayer go hand-in-hand on Friday nights and no court can change that.

The 16-year-old son of a Baptist preacher and many of his classmates at Bogue Chitto High are counting on fans in this little Mississippi community to restore prayer to the stadium legally -- with individuals deciding, on their own, to join hands and recite the Lord's Prayer.

The students' effort is part of a grass-roots movement, mainly in communities across the South, to encourage ''spontaneous'' prayer as a way to get around a U.S. Supreme Court ruling barring school officials from letting students lead stadium crowds in prayer.

The high court ruling in June came in a Texas case brought by two families -- one Catholic and one Mormon -- who challenged a school policy of letting students elect someone to lead the benediction.

''We have a very strong Christian atmosphere here,'' Scott said of the town, which has a Baptist church directly across from the 500-student school. ''I feel like people have a right to express their Christian views. This is a community thing.''

Football fan John Hart, who plans to attend Friday night's game, said people who don't want to pray have two options: ''They can shut their ears or go somewhere else.''

David Ingebretsen of the American Civil Liberties Union said what is being planned is illegal.

''It seems to me that a planned spontaneous prayer cannot be spontaneous and it violates the court's ruling,'' Ingebretsen said. ''If this planned, spontaneous prayer happens, it forces everyone there to hear that prayer or to participate in it.''

The movement, which has gained momentum over the past couple of weeks, was spearheaded in Mississippi by radio talk-show host Paul Ott, who used his syndicated call-in program, ''Listen to the Eagle,'' to get his message out on stations in Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas.

Ott, who sees the removal of prayer from schools as the cause of many of the nation's ills, said he consulted with lawyers and believes individual participation is the key to avoiding a legal confrontation.

''I don't know who's going to start it. I think it will be the students,'' he said. ''We don't think this is breaking the law, but if it is breaking the law, I don't think they're going to take thousands of people to jail.''

Jim Keith, the attorney for the school district, said as long as the school isn't orchestrating the prayer, there's no harm done. ''If fans are sitting in the stand, and they want to branch out and say the Lord's Prayer, or some prayer to Allah or whoever, they can do that,'' Keith said.

In Asheville, N.C., churchgoers are making a similar push for ''spontaneous'' prayer at high school games. In South Carolina, crowds plan to gather around the goal post and in the bleachers to recite the Lord's Prayer before high school games.

Elsewhere in Mississippi, people in Hattiesburg and Tupelo plan to distribute fliers urging fans to pray at football games in those communities, said J.D. Simpson of First Priority, a national campus ministry for junior high and high schools.

And the American Family Association, a conservative group in Tupelo, is also urging students and spectators at high school games across the country to recite the Lord's Prayer.

By SHELIA HARDWELL BYRD

Associated Press Writer

BOGUE CHITTO, Miss. -- Wide receiver Scott Edwards says high school football and prayer go hand-in-hand on Friday nights and no court can change that.

The 16-year-old son of a Baptist preacher and many of his classmates at Bogue Chitto High are counting on fans in this little Mississippi community to restore prayer to the stadium legally -- with individuals deciding, on their own, to join hands and recite the Lord's Prayer.

The students' effort is part of a grass-roots movement, mainly in communities across the South, to encourage ''spontaneous'' prayer as a way to get around a U.S. Supreme Court ruling barring school officials from letting students lead stadium crowds in prayer.

The high court ruling in June came in a Texas case brought by two families -- one Catholic and one Mormon -- who challenged a school policy of letting students elect someone to lead the benediction.

''We have a very strong Christian atmosphere here,'' Scott said of the town, which has a Baptist church directly across from the 500-student school. ''I feel like people have a right to express their Christian views. This is a community thing.''

Football fan John Hart, who plans to attend Friday night's game, said people who don't want to pray have two options: ''They can shut their ears or go somewhere else.''

David Ingebretsen of the American Civil Liberties Union said what is being planned is illegal.

''It seems to me that a planned spontaneous prayer cannot be spontaneous and it violates the court's ruling,'' Ingebretsen said. ''If this planned, spontaneous prayer happens, it forces everyone there to hear that prayer or to participate in it.''

The movement, which has gained momentum over the past couple of weeks, was spearheaded in Mississippi by radio talk-show host Paul Ott, who used his syndicated call-in program, ''Listen to the Eagle,'' to get his message out on stations in Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas.

Ott, who sees the removal of prayer from schools as the cause of many of the nation's ills, said he consulted with lawyers and believes individual participation is the key to avoiding a legal confrontation.

''I don't know who's going to start it. I think it will be the students,'' he said. ''We don't think this is breaking the law, but if it is breaking the law, I don't think they're going to take thousands of people to jail.''

Jim Keith, the attorney for the school district, said as long as the school isn't orchestrating the prayer, there's no harm done. ''If fans are sitting in the stand, and they want to branch out and say the Lord's Prayer, or some prayer to Allah or whoever, they can do that,'' Keith said.

In Asheville, N.C., churchgoers are making a similar push for ''spontaneous'' prayer at high school games. In South Carolina, crowds plan to gather around the goal post and in the bleachers to recite the Lord's Prayer before high school games.

Elsewhere in Mississippi, people in Hattiesburg and Tupelo plan to distribute fliers urging fans to pray at football games in those communities, said J.D. Simpson of First Priority, a national campus ministry for junior high and high schools.

And the American Family Association, a conservative group in Tupelo, is also urging students and spectators at high school games across the country to recite the Lord's Prayer.



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