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Outside the Lines: HS Football and Prayer

Outside The Lines - Controversy Grows Over Prayer Before High School Football Games

September 3, 2000

Bob Ley, host - It is a heavenly irony that just as religion is increasingly a topic in the presidential election campaign, the almighty - or at least prayer to him - is banished from high school football pre-game ceremonies.

That may be an oversimplification. But this is an emotional topic, especially for the proponents of public prayer at football games, and especially across the American South where football and religion are twin pillars of everyday life.

We've come to this point because two families, one Mormon, the other Catholic, sued the Santa Fe, Texas, school district objecting to public pre-game prayers that were school sponsored and led by students. This summer, in a six-to-three decision, the United States Supreme Court agreed, forcing many communities to discontinue a local tradition as old as football itself.

For the past two weeks, some towns have tried an end run around the ruling using moments of silence, or including the pre-game prayer as part of the radio broadcast of the game.

But Jeremy Schaap reports from one school district where the passion for football prayer matches the anger with the high court. And the prayers do continue.

Jeremy Schaap, ESPN Correspondent - There are a few things sacred to the people of the twin towns of Batesburg and Leesville, South Carolina, the barbecue they serve at SheaLey's (ph), the football they play Friday nights, and their faith.

Schaap - When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down school-sponsored public prayer at high school football games, the local school board from Batesburg-Leesville resisted. Early last month, it passed a resolution stating that it would not, quote, "prohibit a student from voluntarily delivering an invocation or prayer before school events. Furthermore, the district will make its public address system available for any such invocation or prayer."

Ralph Kennedy, Jr., Chairman, Lexington County School District Three - I think what's important is that students have the ability to have the freedom of expression. They're guaranteed that under the constitution, just like you are, just like I am. And we want them to recognize that.

Schaap - Two weeks later, on the eve of the first football game of the season, the board amended the resolution to allow students also to address secular topics. The policy now states that students have a right to speak, quote, "religiously or otherwise."

Kennedy - We're giving them this open public forum to use the school system to address if they choose to do so.

Unidentified Female - Heavenly Father, we thank you for this day and allowing us to go...

Schaap - The school board says it will allow up to three students, one minute each, to address the crowds before Panther home games, that they will be selected on a first-come-first-serve basis, and that they can say whatever they want as long as their comments are not disruptive.

Through two games, three of the four students who've spoken have offered prayers.

Laverne Neal, Executive Director, South Carolina American Civil Liberties Union - We feel that it's a violation of the 1st Amendment. And it's a direct violation of the Santa Fe U.S. Supreme Court decision that was passed in June.

Schaap - Laverne Neal is the executive director of the South Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. She says that by providing a forum for prayer, the school is in effect establishing religion in violation of the 1st Amendment and a large body of Supreme Court decisions.

Neal - It's clear that their decision is to endorse and to advance religion over other types of beliefs or no beliefs.

Schaap - The intent is not to allow students to pray.

Kennedy - Well, the intent is to allow students to express themselves either secularly or religiously.

Schaap - So they can express themselves any way they see fit?

Kennedy - That's right.

Schaap - Any kind of free speech.

Kennedy - That's right. So long as it's not disruptive.

Schaap - On Friday, Neal sent the school district a letter outlining the ACLU's position.

Neal - Hopefully they'll respond positively to the letter and will rescind their resolution. If not, then the ACLU will take further legal action.

Kennedy - It's my understanding from talking to the attorneys - and we have consulted a number of attorneys in this regard who specialize in constitutional issues - that this is certainly a defensible resolution.

Schaap - Eldon Wedlock is a law professor at the University of South Carolina. He says that while the school board's position may be defensible, the Supreme Court decision in Santa Fe makes it unwinnable.

Wedlock - It clearly states that the school district by permitting a prayer at a football game, having a policy that permits a prayer at a football game, they're violating the establishment clause. It's no policy. So I don't think they have a leg to stand on.

Schaap - Wedlock says it makes no difference that the resolution allows students to speak secularly as well as religiously.

Wedlock - It really doesn't matter. The fact of the matter is that the reality of the situation is the only reason that this is coming up is because they want to have prayer at the football games. The reason they want to have prayer at the football games is because they've always done it.

I can understand why they don't want to change and why they feel that this is something that is being imposed on them. But it's a question of whether or not they want to follow the law or not. And it's a question of the kind of lesson I think that they want to teach the kids.

Schaap - Any lesson in South Carolina history begins and ends with acts of defiance from Ft. Sumter and the first shots of the Civil War, to Columbia where until a few months ago the confederate flag flew on top of the capital dome. And more than almost anywhere else in the U.S., people here cling to tradition.

To the people of Batesburg-Leesville, the resolution is clearly less about freedom of speech than prayer and what they perceive as federal interference.

Friday night, Junior Marvin Dozier, Jr. spoke as the Panthers were about to play Strom Thurmond High School.

Marvin Dozier, Jr. - I feel that it was my right. And it was my duty to be able to go up there and to be able to pray. And so that's why I went up there and did what I had to do.

Schaap - At least one student disagrees with the school board's decision.

Unidentified Male - I don't think we should have a prayer before the games here.

Schaap - Why?

Unidentified Male - I think mainly because the Supreme Court really knows better what's a student's rights than a small town school board does.

Schaap - For its part, the ACLU like the Supreme Court, isn't arguing that students should not be allowed to pray, only that public schools should not institutionalize prayer.

Neal - The fundamental issue here that the school cannot endorse, sponsor, or mandate religion. They have to remain neutral.

It is not necessary for the school to establish a policy or a resolution that gives students a right to pray. The 1st Amendment already does that. The students' right to pray already exists. And the ACLU will always and has always defended that right.

Schaap - The ACLU says the parents of several students at Batesburg-Leesville High School have expressed an interest in filing suit against the School Board. But none has yet to do so.

If no student at the school steps forward, the ACLU is hoping that someone else with legal standing - a local resident perhaps or a student at a school that plays the Panthers - will challenge Lexington School District Three. In the end, finding a plaintiff may be more difficult than winning a case many legal scholars describe as open and shut.

Ley - And when Outside The Lines continues, I'll speak with a congressman from South Carolina who also disagrees with the Supreme Court, and with a minister who is also an attorney who believes such prayer has no place at high school football games.

Ley - Public pre-game prayer at high school football games, it is a long tradition and the latest issue in a 40-year debate over religion in schools. Joining us from Clemson, South Carolina, Congressman Lindsey Graham whose district includes the high school we visited where prayer essentially continues; and from Washington, DC, Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Mr. Lynn is an ordained minister.

Congressman, if I can begin with you, what do you think of what your constituents did in Batesburg-Leesville under the Friday night lights?

Rep. Lindsey Graham (R), South Carolina - Well, they're trying very hard at the school district level to allow a sense of community to exist without violating the law.

You know, this whole policy about church and state and students praying at football games has its origin in the decision about 40 years ago in the '60s. Until that point in time, I think people in America were allowed to exercise their 1st Amendment rights in a logical fashion.

I'm not for any school district or state or anyone else making someone engage in a religious activity they find offensive. However, this is about a sense of community.

I really believe that the people in Batesburg-Leesville and Santa Fe, New Mexico, and all over the country ought to be able to have a chance to pray for the safety of their kids and that everybody get home safe in a public forum after the school hour is over.

And that doesn't violate anybody's 1st Amendment rights. And it just reinforces what the country is all about.

Ley - Well, Mr. Lynn, I would assume that you believe that Batesburg-Leesville violated the court decision. How many school districts do you believe on Friday and Saturday around the country were in violation?

Barry Lynn, Executive Director, Americans United for Separation of Church and State - I think it's a minority certainly of the school districts around the country that have taken this time to really thumb their nose at the United States Supreme Court. And without getting technical about how they're doing it, this kind of accommodation of religion is really more than that.

It's the promotion of specific religion down there in Batesburg-Leesville. And I think that the lawsuit that was just discussed in this piece is very likely to happen.

I think the congressman needs to go back and look at some of the history. It was not in 1960 that all of a sudden there was no praying in public schools. About half of the states before the 1960 decision had by virtue of state Supreme Court decisions or by the policies of the legislatures decided not to have it because they didn't want anyone to feel like a second class citizen in any school in their state.

And here we have in a few districts, including this one in South Carolina, people standing up with an attitude of defiance. And there's nothing courageous about this kind of defiance, Bob.

This is not as one protester had on a sign outside one of these games Friday night, "Daniel prayed in the lion's den." Well, I can assure you that the South Carolina football stadium is not the lion's den. The analogy to Daniel would maybe be if you were a Christian praying in front of some Chinese thug over in Communist China with a gun. That would be courageous.

But to stand up with 1,000 of your co-religionists and pray and essentially say, "We're the biggest group here and we're going to do what we want," that's really not an attitude that I as a minister think is the appropriate way in which we take our communications directly to God.

Ley - Well, Congressman, let me ask you, a lot of legal scholars have said certainly what happened Friday in Batesburg-Leesville was beyond the pale, was quite obviously a case that is a slam dunk if they can find a defendant. I mean, do you believe they were defying the Supreme Court? That's a serious charge.

Graham - Well, the school district is trying to weave its way into some constitutional decisions that have evolved since the '60s...

Ley - But they're pretty well out there on this.

Graham - ... that are very hard to interpret. Yeah, there was a dissenting view on this case. It was six to three.

A Supreme Court decision is a snapshot in time. In the late 1800s, they upheld school segregation because that was the dominant view of the time.

Here's what I predict, Bill. Here's what I predict is going to happen, that over time the sense of community that has been lost by not allowing people after school to offer a non-sectarian prayer to wish their students and the athletes well and to invoke the higher authority is going to give way, and that the dissenting view 20 years from now will be the majority view, and we'll be better off.

This is not a defiant state in terms of "we do it our way or no way." This is a group of people who believe they're second class citizens because the Supreme Court over the last 40 years has destroyed the whole point of the 1st Amendment, the free exercise clause.

The first act of Congress was to pay for 16,000 Bibles. We pray in Congress. We have a chaplain corps in the military.

We have got to be silly I think in disallowing people at a football game to have a moment of prayer or silence to respect those people who are about to play and wish people well to go back home and not to be hurt. This has gotten to be crazy.

Lynn - Congressman, there was nothing silent about it. There was nothing non-sectarian about the prayers that we've been hearing prayed down in South Carolina. They're Christian prayers, and we all know that.

But go down to Santa Fe, Texas, which was the source...

Graham - Right.

Lynn - ... of this original Supreme Court. And an interesting thing happened. Only 200 people out of the 4,500 people in the stands participated in this effort to defy the court.

And I think that that does not mean that the other 4,300 people didn't pray. I'm sure that they were praying with their families over dinner that night and on the way to the game. And they were sitting quietly in the stands and expressing the same kind of sentiments that you've just articulated, make sure that our team and everyone on the field is healthy and is safe through this game.

But they weren't trying to make a big public show of it. They were doing I think what Jesus himself, not the ACLU but Jesus, said you should do. Don't go out and pray on the street corner...

Graham - Jesus...

Lynn - ... so you can be see by men, but go into your own room and pray in private because your father will hear you. That's really the nature of prayer.

It is not - and I don't know where we got this idea - that God is somehow hard of hearing, and unless you scream with hundreds of people or thousands of people, God is not going to listen to your prayer...

Ley - Let me jump in right there...

Lynn - ... That's just bad theology.

Ley - ... Let me jump in right here just for a second. We will continue.

Mr. Lynn, you have called such prayer "bullying and mob rule." I'd like to get the congressman's reaction to that as we continue with Lindsey Graham and Barry Lynn considering pre-game football prayer in a district in South Carolina where the prayer essentially continues.

Ley - We continue talking football prayer with Congressman Lindsey Graham and with Barry Lynn.

Mr. Lynn, you have called public prayer, such high school prayers, "bullying and mob rule." I assume that's an accurate quote.

Lynn - It is.

Ley - All right, Congressman Graham, is this bullying? Is this mob rule? I doubt you agree.

Graham - Well, one analogy he gave is only 200 people out of 2,000 engaged in the Lord's Prayer. Obviously, it wasn't bullying and mob rule there.

The right of public expression of faith outside the kitchen room is part of America. I have a right as an American to express my belief. And an organized fashion that's not coercive is OK.

The constitution allowed people to come together in a sense of community in a non-threatening, non-coercive way to express their religious faith. If you followed this logic that God has to stay in the kitchen, that's bad for America.

We start every session of Congress with prayer. We have a chaplain in Congress. We're a diverse group of people.

It's not coercive. We all want to be there. We all engage in the prayer. And if you don't want to be there, don't show up.

Graham - Nobody is making you do anything...

Lynn - Congressman...

Graham - ... We have chaplains in the military to pray for our men and women going off to war. Surely to goodness, a prayer offered before a football game after the school hour is over that is not coercive in nature is within the bounds of a the free exercise clause.

We've gotten crazy in the last 40 years of trying to drive the idea of faith out of every institution and every fabric of society. And we're worse off as a nation. I predict change is coming.

Lynn - I don't know where you get this idea that anybody is trying to drive faith out of every public square. I didn't say that you should only pray in the kitchen.

In fact, I think it's a good thing when people who do share a religious viewpoint are able...

Ley - Mr. Lynn, this is a tradition that has been there for years, as old as football itself...

Lynn - Absolutely.

Graham - It's a sense of community...

Ley - ... you're a minister...

Lynn - Absolutely.

Ley - ... So you can understand what this means to people having a central tenet of their Friday or Saturdays in the fall jerked out of their lives as they see from Washington, DC.

Graham - come out of the kitchen.

Lynn - Well, you asked the question, Bob, and I think it's a good one. But the point is that we are living now in a country that has 2,000 different religions as well as literally millions of people who are non-believers.

And I don't want anyone to feel like they couldn't move to Batesburg, South Carolina, because they're not going to be welcome there because the majority or almost everyone happens to be a Baptist or happens to be a Christian. I don't want prayer to become something that divides communities.

Graham - My law partner was Jewish in Seneca, South Carolina. Everyone is welcome. People of faith, people who don't have faith are welcome. But to deny me my right or people in Batesburg-Leesville their right to pray or to express that God would watch over their kids when they play football is not driving anybody out of the community.

Lynn - Congressman, did you go to the game? Did you go?

Graham - Last night? No, I went to the high school football game up here.

Lynn - Yeah, but the point is that if you had gone to Batesburg-Leesville, you would not have seen any kind of prayer police. Nobody would stop someone from praying in the stands.

See, you guys have created a system where you think or you wanted people to have the impression that someone is going to put masking tape over the mouth of someone that's praying. And that's not true.

The question is should this school district help to promote this practice? Should you use the public address system?

Graham - The students are doing it, not the school district.

Lynn - The court said no. Should you delay the game? The court said no...

Ley - Let's talk about the kids because the high school...

Graham - The students are doing it.

Ley - ... well, yes. The high school football coach at Batesburg-Leesville was more than a little bit uneasy with all the media in town - ESPN, many major newspapers, and other television networks. What does this do to the kids? What message does it send? Because it basically comes down to the youngsters, which the court is trying to protect.

When you have some people saying your school district is defying the Supreme Court, and others are saying our rights are being taken away, what message to children do students take away from this at the football game?

Lynn - It's a terrible message. It's a message that says if you don't like the Supreme Court rulings - and of course, I think the congressman and I both disagree with many individual rulings - you can just go and find some clever way to avoid it. Bring your boom boxes and turn them up at a specific moment, and there will be a prayer from the local Christian station. I mean, we haven't had trained parents brought into stadiums yet to pray.

But this kid of way to cleverly avoid the Supreme Court's rule of the land is really a dangerous message to young people that says the law only is the law if you agree with it. If you don't, just go ahead and violate it. I don't think that's right.

Ley - Congressman.

Graham - I think that's very unfair. What we're trying to do in Batesburg-Leesville and throughout America, not just in the South, is to make sure that our kids can express a sense of faith, that they can see people in the community coming together and offering a prayer for their well-being, and doing it in a way that is constitutional.

The Supreme Court dissenters in this case will be the majority soon. That's what this election is really about.

We have an irrational view of faith in the public that is really dividing America. The Supreme Court is doing us a disservice when they're trying to drive people back into the kitchen.

What I hope the kids will learn from their school district is that the school district is trying to comply with the law to make a sense of community exist. It's not coercing anybody. It's not driving anybody's faith into the ground. It's trying to allow the people in Batesburg-Leesville to express a sense of community that's been a tradition as long as I've been alive or longer.

Ley - Barry Lynn, one quick sentence...

Lynn - Sure.

Ley - ... What is your allowable standard for expression of prayer in football? And it's a quick sentence.

Lynn - Young people and their parents have a right to do this in the stands. The government cannot delay the game in order to facilitate this happening or use the public address system. I predict that the Supreme Court is going to continue to say just what it said...

Ley - OK.

Lynn - ... as clearly as I predict the Redskins are going to win today.

Ley - OK, gentlemen, thank you very much. Thanks to Congressman Lindsey Graham...

Graham - Thank you.

Ley - ... and to Barry Lynn.

Lynn - Thank you.

Ley - Next up, we will have a look ahead at a topic as familiar to sports as any score. We're talking about pain and how athletes deal with it.

Ley - Tuesday evening, Outside The Lines, pain. Athletes play with it and inflict it. They'll do nearly anything to get rid of it. But in the end, most simply live with it.

Unidentified Male - My God, no left hip. My right one is on its way out. I've got no right leg. A 40-year-old man in an 80-year-old body.

Ley - How athletes and their teams cope with the constant reality of pain. That is Tuesday evening directly after "SportsCenter," "No Pain, No Game," Outside The Lines Tuesday at 7 -00 p.m. Eastern. Join us for a look at how athletes and their teams deal with the constant reality of pain.

Ley - If you joined us along the way, a reminder about our new time during the NFL season, 9 -30 Eastern each Sunday. And each Sunday, Outside The Lines re-airs on ESPN2 at 1 -00 p.m. Eastern, 10 -00 a.m. on the west coast.

We welcome your e-mail at Next up, we go to the ESPN zone in Times Square, Dick Schaap and the "Sports Reporters." We'll see you.

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