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Without a Prayer

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Assistant Principal Michael Chandler says public schools in his Alabama county still consider preā€“game prayers well within bounds.

DeKalb County, Ala.

The football game between the Geraldine Bulldogs and the Warriors of Westbrook Christian School is about to start. That the game is being played at all is something of a miracle. Torrential thunderstorms swept through northeastern Alabama earlier on this Friday, the traditional day of the week for one of the most important community events in small towns across the South: high school football.

Most other schools in rural DeKalb County, as well as throughout the region from Huntsville down to Gadsden, have postponed their Friday night games, holding out for sunshine and drier fields on Saturday. But at Geraldine High, the game will begin in a steady drizzle. The aroma of boiled peanuts wafts through the damp fall air from a truck just a few yards from one of the end zones. Hardy fans line up to buy Styrofoam cups full of the regionally popular snack to crack open and eat during the game.

Minutes before the Bulldogs storm the home field, two dozen students and cheerleaders stream onto the soggy turf for the traditional "victory line," where they rally for their team as the players burst through a paper circle and make their way to the sideline. On this night, a few of the enthusiastic fans wear T-shirts that have gained popularity at school. The front reads: "Dog spelled backwards is GOD. Our mascot is the DOG. Our Master is GOD." And the back proclaims: "In prayer, power is mine! Meet me in the victory line."

The white shirts with black lettering allude to a controversy that has gripped DeKalb County and its public schools for almost a year. Students began wearing the T-shirts when school officials reluctantly told them they could no longer have student-led prayers at Friday night football games. As Leslie Sexton, the president of the Geraldine High student council, put it to The Gadsden Times: "We feel like they're taking our privileges away. We want to take a stand and get them back."

Dianna Armstrong, a Geraldine High freshman who is wearing her T-shirt at tonight's football game, says the purpose of the shirts is simply "to signify that we are Christians."

Sitting in a nearby bleacher is the man who, to a large degree, is the target of the T-shirts. Michael Chandler, the assistant principal at DeKalb County's Valley Head High School, filed a federal lawsuit last February alleging that the school system has allowed a variety of unconstitutionalreligious practices for years. The American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, as well as the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, have both backed his suit. The school district, in large part, has denied violating the law. But tonight, few, if any, people in the crowd at the Geraldine game seem to recognize Chandler as the man causing the big ruckus over religious practices in the public schools here.

Chandler came to the Geraldine game because he has read about the T-shirts in the local paper and wants to see for himself. He also wants to see whether any prayer or moment of silence is observed before the game. He's shown up at a lot of other football games across the county this fall for the same reason. Sometimes, he brings his camcorder. Sometimes, he's asked to leave.

But there's no prayer tonight at Geraldine High. And perhaps because of the rain and the desire to get the ball in play, the moment of silence is brief.

Pre-game prayers are just one of the religious practices Chandler has challenged in DeKalb County. The 46-year-old native and longtime educator alleges that the county public schools have a history of allowing clergy-led and student-led prayers at graduation ceremonies, the distribution of Gideon Bibles in schools, Christian devotionals at school assemblies, and teacher-led prayers in at least one classroom.

Pre-game prayers are just one of the religious practices Chandler has challenged in DeKalb County.

Besides such practices in DeKalb County, the ACLU included in the lawsuit an unidentified plaintiff's challenge of prayers in another Alabama school district, the Talledega city system. The suit also challenges a 1993 Alabama law authorizing "voluntary prayer, invocations, and/or benedictions" by students during "compulsory school-related student assemblies, school-related sporting events, school-related graduation or commencement ceremonies, and other school-related student events."

Some of the alleged practices cited in Chandler's lawsuit, if they indeed took place, have been clearly unconstitutional for a long time. Classroom prayers have been off limits since the U.S. Supreme Court's school-prayer rulings of 1962 and 1963. In several Southern states, prayers before athletic contests have been out of bounds since 1989, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit struck them down in a well-known Georgia case. And clergy-led prayers at graduation ceremonies were ruled unconstitutional in 1992 by a sharply divided 5-4 Supreme Court. In that case, Lee v. Weisman, the high court said school-sponsored prayers at a graduation ceremony carry a special risk of coercion for students in attendance.

But a few of the practices challenged here are hotly disputed legal questions of more recent vintage, particularly student-led prayers. Many conservatives argue the First Amendment's clause barring any government establishment of religion clashes with students' and community members' First Amendment right to freely exercise their religion. One federal appeals court has found that student-initiated, student-led graduation prayers do not violate the First Amendment. Other courts have reached the opposite conclusion.

In many communities, these religious practices have gone on routinely for years.

The U.S. Supreme Court has not clearly ruled on that issue, but conservatives across the country have pushed the idea of voluntary student-led prayer at school events. Congress even got involved by looking at proposals to amend the Constitution to extend greater protection to student prayers in public schools. The proposals were shelved this fall amid Republican squabbling over what such an amendment should include.

What is clear is that in many communities, particularly small towns across the South, these religious practices have gone on routinely for years. They become a point of conflict only when someone is willing to go up against tradition. And more and more, someone is.

Daniel Weisman and his family in Providence, R.I., challenged clergy-led prayers in the district's public schools. The suit resulted in the Supreme Court's 1992 ruling in Lee v. Weisman.

Lisa Herdahl, who moved from Wisconsin to a small town in Mississippi a few years ago, wondered why her children were subjected to prayers over the intercom every morning in their public school. A federal judge earlier this year struck down the intercom prayers and some other religious practices in the Pontotoc County school system.

And Michael Chandler says he has complained about unconstitutional religious practices in DeKalb County for the better part of a decade. Last February, he decided to make a federal case out of it.


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