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Football players pray despite court ruling

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BATESBURG-LEESVILLE, S.C. — Undaunted by the possibility of a lawsuit, Batesburg-Leesville High School's student body president took the microphone in the stadium press box and said a prayer as football fans stood silently.

Other schools across the country — mainly in the Bible Belt — faced the same dilemma Friday as the first high school football games of the season began: whether to continue a tradition or obey a two-month-old Supreme Court ruling that declares school-sponsored prayer at sporting events a violation of students' constitutional rights.

Each week Batesburg-Leesville has a home game, students will be able to sign up to speak before kickoff.

"I'm glad the tradition will be able to continue," said student body president Kimi Boozer.

Terry Schultz, a member of Reformation Presbyterian Church in Hendersonville, N.C., led a prayer at a Hendersonville High School football game. Several people from other churches, who formed a protest group called "We Still Pray," participated.

"I wanted to come and support prayer," Schultz said. "I'm concerned for all the young people here."

In Searcy, Ark., members of the school board voted to let a nonprofit interdenominational group hold prayers around a stadium flag pole before high school games.

Actor Tom Lester, who played Eb Dawson on the 1960s TV show "Green Acres," led a prayer at a game in Hattiesburg, Miss.

Legal scholars warned that some districts could be opening themselves up to legal challenges by allowing the prayers.

Two students already have called the American Civil Liberties Union's South Carolina branch to express concern about the "voluntary" prayer before the Batesburg-Leesville game, said LaVerne Neal, executive director of the group.

The Supreme Court's ruling came in a Texas case brought by two families, one Catholic and one Mormon, who challenged a school policy of letting students elect someone to lead the benediction.

The court, which ruled the district's policy of allowing such student-led prayers violated the constitutionally required separation of government, wrote: "Nothing in the Constitution ... prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during or after the school day. But the religious liberty protected by the Constitution is abridged when the state affirmatively sponsors the particular religious practice of prayer."

For Lexington School District 3, which includes Batesburg-Leesville, the key word in allowing prayers was "voluntary." School board members said they believe students stepping up to pray on their own — even over the school's public address system — won't run afoul of the court's ruling.

"We do what the law says. We don't control what our fans do," said Joe Howell, principal at Pelahatchie High School, where students had planned a "spontaneous" pre-game prayer Friday but decided to keep it silent in the face of television news cameras.

No one in Batesburg-Leesville visibly protested the prayer led by Boozer, but some fans had mixed feelings about possibly breaking the law.

"My heart's for it," said Olins Hooks, "but I think a moment of silence is just as effective."

Rep. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., said earlier he's disappointed that schools have to give up their traditions.

"A prayer at a high school football game asking that the players on the field not get hurt and the fans get home safely is in no way the establishment of religion by the government," Graham said.

But some people who practice other faiths, like Nancy Greer of Greenville, who follows Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism, said the Supreme Court's ruling is protecting their rights.

"It is very difficult to have a totally universal-type prayer that would be applicable to everyone who might attend a football game," Greer said.

On the Net: ACLU: www.aclu.org

Supreme Court, case is Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 99-62: www.supremecourtus.gov