Tuesday, June 20, 2000

Local schools review ban on pregame prayers

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday said praying in public schools must be private. It ruled that student-led prayer involving the entire crowd before a high school football game in Texas unconstitutionally violated separation of church and state.

        The decision didn't address the tradition of a pregame prayer in the locker room, but Tristate coaches and legal experts alike said the ruling will at least force districts to re-examine their policies, if not scale back entirely on current practices.

        “The question is going to be how much influence the school or the coach has, and the answer should be none,” said Ronna Greff Schneider, a law professor at the University of Cincinnati. “The gray area is going to be how much of it was truly initiated by the students and how spontaneous it was.”

        Four high school students and their parents sued the Santa Fe Independent School District in Galveston County, Texas, in 1995 over its policy of letting students elect a “chaplain” to lead prayers at graduation ceremonies and home football games.

        Two families — one Catholic and one Mormon — challenged the policy. Their identities were sealed by the courts.

        The district changed its policy soon after the suit to allow student-elected representatives to address the crowds, but the policy was struck down in Monday's 6-3 decision.

        “School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority.

        Dr. Greff Schneider said that the decision could reach into the locker room, especially because it addressed peer pressure and the im pressionability of adolescents.

        One place where it could have an effect is Mason High School, where the girls' basketball team holds a prayer before each game.

        Coach Gerry Lackey says he feels caught in the middle, with the team holding the prayer on its own without his influence but with his knowledge.

        “I'm definitely going to have to deal with it, especially if we get a member of the team who isn't Christian,” said Mr. Lackey, whose team won the state championship last year. “It's a touchy situation, though. I don't want to tell them not to do it, but I don't want anyone excluded.”

        The decision does not apply to parochial or private schools.

        But even at the area's Catholic schools, a pregame public prayer is unheard of. Coaches do lead locker room prayers, according to Archdiocese of Cincinnati spokesman Dan Andriacco, and that would not be affected by Monday's decision.

        Highlands High School in Fort Thomas takes a different approach, with athletes and coaches holding a nondenominational moment of silence before any game or event.

        “We know that there could be a variety of religions in the locker room, and we don't want to be favoring one over the other,” said Highlands football coach and athletic director Dale Mueller. “We haven't monitored to make sure that is what happens in all sports, but we'll definitely take a closer look at it now with the Supreme Court ruling in on it.”

        The same holds true at Withrow High, said athletic director Ted Kiep.

        “It's not really an issue, with coaches offering a moment of silence, but even that is kind of informal,” Mr. Kiep said.

        John Concannon, general counsel for Cincinnati Public Schools, said he had previously issued guidelines for the area's largest school district that said coaches and school officials should not interfere if a student wants to pray on his own, but those same officials should not participate or push their own beliefs.

        “Remember, this is not an anti-religion case, but a separation case,” Mr. Concannon said. “None of what happens in a locker room or anywhere else should sound or feel like the school is endorsing any religion in any way or tell kids what they should believe.”

        In Finneytown, there is no prayer policy, according to boys' basketball coach and athletic director Chuck Grosser. Students are allowed to pray on their own but no moments of silence are set aside.

        “We haven't had to deal with it, but it's going to be an issue more and more here and elsewhere,” Mr. Grosser said. “You see pro athletes getting together before and after games and praying all the time, and kids are trying to emulate that. All we should be looking for as coaches is that everyone is included and no one is made to feel left out.”

        The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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