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Prayer at Sports Events Is Challenged

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A Jewish family in Florida has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to bar the Okaloosa County School District from holding religious invocations before the start of high-school football games.

The suit, filed last month in U.S. district court in Pensacola by Air Force Master Sgt. Mark Berlin, his wife, and his two teen-age children, alleges that the invocations, which are said to be given almost exclusively by Protestant clergymen, violate both their First Amendment right to free exercise of religion and the amendment's ban on state establishment of religion.

That and a similar suit in Atlanta challenge a longstanding practice in many communities, especially in the Southeast.

In their suit, the Berlin family specifically objects to a recent invocation that ended with the words "through Jesus Christ our Lord."

The suit also alleges additional constitutional violations by county school officials, including prayers at other school events.

The district won the first round of the legal battle late last month, when U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson denied the family's motion to block an invocation before the final home game of the season. In that game, Mr. Berlin's son, Max, kicked the point that defeated the visiting team.

David Selby, a lawyer for the district, defended the 35-year practice. The invocations are more "traditional and historic" in nature than religious, he said, and thus are permissible under the First Amendment.

He also argued that unlike schoolchildren, football fans are not a "captive audience."

But Mark Freedman, the executive director of the American Jewish Congress's Southeastern region, said the pregame prayers were nonetheless unconstitutional.

"The prayer itself is insensitive," said Mr. Freedman, whose group is supporting the Berlins' suit. "In a public setting, they should not be delivering a sectarian prayer."

Prior to the hearing, the district agreed to instruct football coaches to not participate in or encourage team prayers other than those offered during the invocation.

Previous Ruling in Atlanta

In a similar suit, a federal district judge in Atlanta ruled last February that invocations given exclusively by Protestant clergymen at school sporting events were unconstitutional.

But the court ruled that invocations led by randomly selected students, parents, or staff members were, in theory, constitutional.

Lawyers for the student plaintiff in the case, Douglas Jager, who is appealing the decision, argued that the religious invocations were unconstitutional because they gave the impression that the school district was favoring one religion over others.

Lawyers for the Douglas County School District in suburban Atlanta argued that the religious invocations helped control the crowd and prevent violence, added a dignified tone to the proceedings, and advocated fair play and good sportsmanship.

In a related development, district officials in Los Angeles recently told high-school football coaches to stop having team prayers and moments of silence before games.

In a memorandum distributed to the coaches in October, the officials said such practices violated the constitutional mandate of separation of church and state.

And last month, the California Supreme Court upheld a ban on reli8gious invocations at public-high-school graduation ceremonies on the grounds that they violated the First Amendment. The lower-court decision prohibited references to "God Almighty" at the exercises.

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