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Without a Prayer

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"The only way we can live under the Constitution ... is to teach and live the ideals and beliefs that gave us the Constitution."

Gary Carlyle, Sylvania High School Principal

Gary Carlyle, the principal of nearby Sylvania High School, has strong views on religion in schools and isn't afraid to share them. Like many principals in the South, Carlyle is an ex-coach who appears to have a strong grip on his school.

A few weeks ago, he allegedly kicked Chandler out of a Sylvania High football game because he brought a camcorder with him to videotape any pre-game prayers. Chandler says Carlyle told him it was against the rules of the state athletic association to videotape games without permission, even though dozens of parents toted camcorders to the game to catch their sons in action.

In an open letter to local newspapers, Carlyle provides "one educator's thoughts on the constitutionality of having Christian principles taught in school." He cites a handful of Supreme Court cases from the 1800s, as well as quotes from the Founding Fathers, in support of the proposition that the United States is a Christian nation and its principles ought to be encouraged in public schools. "The only way we can live under the Constitution and have our children prosper under the Constitution is to teach and live the ideals and beliefs that gave us the Constitution and have these ideals and beliefs based upon the Christian principles," his letter concludes.

"I'm not trying to hold Sunday school here," says Carlyle, sitting in his office. "But I think in a school we must teach religious values."

He asks rhetorically: "Who causes the most trouble in school, Christian or non-Christian kids? The law is getting twisted a little bit. Where Christian principles are taught, every person has value."

Chandler says Carlyle was the only principal in the county to have prayers at graduation last spring, despite a temporary court agreement that barred commencement prayers as well as other religious practices at issue in Chandler's case. And this fall, prohibited from having pre-game prayers, Chandler says Sylvania High has instituted moments of silence at football games and invites the band to play such hymns as "Amazing Grace."

"I don't want to live under [Chandler's] restrictions," Carlyle says. "Kids, just because they are in a public school, have not lost their constitutional rights."

Both Chandler's religious-practices and job-bias lawsuits are pending in federal district courts. On the religion suit, Chandler and his lawyers have asked a judge to decide the case based on what they see as clear points of law, without a trial. State officials, defending Alabama's voluntary prayer law, argue that the case should go to trial. The suit is likely to drag on for at least several more months.

DeKalb County residents have become even more vocal.

In the meantime, with the start of another school year and football season upon them, DeKalb County residents have become even more vocal. On a Sunday afternoon in early October, some 3,000 students, parents, and residents packed into DeKalb County's Rainsville Civic Center to rally in support of student prayers. The ministers who organized the rally told local newspapers they wanted it to be a positive event in support of prayer, and not a Chandler-bashing affair. And the strategy worked. Students chanted their love for Jesus, and a student from each of the county's high schools gave a religious testimonial.

One student told The Gadsden Times that prohibiting prayers in schools is the way to let Satan in. "He doesn't just come busting in the door saying, 'I'm taking over here,'" the student said. "He's taking over little by little."

It's almost halftime at the Geraldine High football game, and Michael Chandler is ready to leave. The rain has let up, but Chandler has seen what he came to see: the DOG/god T-shirts and the moment of silence. He doesn't care too much about whether the Bulldogs prevail over Westbrook Christian on this night.

On his way out, Chandler stops to chat with a group of teachers he knows at Geraldine High, where he used to work. But before he can say goodbye, a woman approaches him and asks, "Do you believe in God?"

It turns out that the woman is married to his wife's brother. "I believe religion is a personal matter," he tells her. They have had the conversation before, he says later.

His in-law presses further, asking Chandler whether he reads the Bible. "I read my Bible every night," he says. "It just may not be the same as your Bible."

The woman hugs Chandler and starts to cry. "I am going to pray for you every day of my life," she says. "I want us to end up together in heaven." She turns and walks back to watch the football game.

"She is real serious about that," Chandler says, walking away. "But I truly believe that religion is no one's business but their own."

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