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PREGAME PRAYERS DON'T ESTABLISH RELIGION AT S. CAROLINA SCHOOL

Here in South Carolina the other night, James Island High School was playing Summerville. As the game was about to begin, a Baptist minister, Michael Turner, delivered an invocation:

"God and Father of us all, we thank you for the blessings that are ours through your grace - for the benefits of education, the wisdom of teachers, and the exhilaration of physical competition tonight. Give us all, we pray, an attitude of good sportsmanship and, more importantly, a deep sense of joy in the gift of life itself."Such invocations are traditional in the South, but the tradition may not survive. The state School Boards Association is suggesting that the practice be abandoned lest the high schools be sued.

Well, lawsuits can be fearfully expensive. Even so, perhaps funds could be raised to pursue the constitutional issue. It strikes me as absurd to contend that Turner's prayer threatened to lead to an "establishment of religion" in South Carolina. The idea is patent nonsense.

The leading case in this area arose in Douglas County, Ga., in the fall of 1985. Young Douglas Jager and his father, members of an American Indian family, objected to the pregame prayers that had been delivered for nearly 40 years.

In practice, the school would ask a local minister to deliver a pregame invocation. The games were played in school-owned stadiums, and public funds were used to pay for lights, maintenance and a public address system.

When the Jager family objected, school officials attempted to find an acceptable compromise. They proposed an "equal access" plan. Student clubs would designate one of their members, or a local layman, to deliver an invocation. No ministers would be involved. The school would not monitor the prayer.

Negotiations broke down, and the equal access plan never was implemented. The Jagers sued, and in February 1987 a U.S. district judge held that the pregame prayers by a minister violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The court ruled, however, that the equal access plan was constitutional on its face and might pass muster.

The case went up to the 11th Judicial Circuit. By a 2-1 vote, the appellate court affirmed the lower court. Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr., writing for the majority, found the old arrangement manifestly unconstitutional. He regarded the proposed equal access plan as a sham. It was adopted "with the actual purpose of endorsing and perpetuating religion."

The trial court, said Johnson, had committed wholesale error. It was no justification that a pregame prayer would continue tradition, add a dignified note to the game and remind spectators and players of the importance of good sportsmanship. The school officials also had attempted to justify the invocation because it would satisfy "the genuine, good faith wishes on the part of a majority of citizens of Douglas County to publicly express support of Protestant Christianity." That blew it.

Circuit Judge Paul H. Roney dissented. He felt his colleagues had pushed the Establishment Clause beyond any point required by the Constitution. At a football game there is no classroom or institutional setting. Attendance is "entirely voluntary."

Last June the U.S. Supreme Court banned ministerial prayers at high school commencements, but the 5-4 majority emphasized that attendance at commencement is "in a fair and real sense obligatory."

The elements that prompted the court to ban commencement prayers are not present on the 50-yard line. Attendance is not obligatory in any sense. If the American Civil Liberties Union wants to make an issue out of football prayers in South Carolina, the union might find it a tough game to win.