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Too Much Like A Prayer?

Flouting a Supreme Court ban on the practice, football fans appeal to the Lord on game day

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Whether it's the snap of a football or an act of civil disobedience, the execution is in the timing. Ten minutes before the big game in Forest City, N.C., pastor Danny Jones waits ever so patiently in the press box at Chase High School. As echoes of "the home of the brave" fade away, a local radio broadcaster passes him the microphone. In the stands below, Trojan fans who have brought radios and boom boxes in anticipation of this moment tune in and turn up the volume. "Father in heaven, please bless the game," Jones intones. "Give us safety; give us a good spirit of sportsmanship."

And the Supreme Court be damned. The way Jones and others in the mountain community of Forest City see it, their pregame prayer isn't out of bounds. If Justices in Washington are changing the rules and forbidding student-led prayers over the stadium's public-address system, then they have every right to use constitutionally protected radio waves to carry on the tradition. So far, even the American Civil Liberties Union isn't balking at their strategy to get around the court's finding that group prayer at football games amounts to social coercion.

As Friday-night lights begin to burn on another high school football season, a not-so-quiet revolution is emerging in Southern states, where prayers are considered as much a part of football as Frito pies and hot chocolate. In nearly two dozen season openers earlier this month, students and religious groups came up with ingenious ways to protest--and in some instances, defy--the court's decision. For the faithful in the Christian heartland, praying on game night is the latest in a series of new constitutional maneuvers to circumvent laws that they consider to be secular oppression. Already the religious rebellion is organizing into a successful Christian resistance movement of everyday people. After an Alabama judge was sued for refusing to remove the Ten Commandments from his courtroom, Christian groups pushed to have them declared a historical document in several states. Now they hang next to the Declaration of Independence in dozens of schools and public buildings.

In the ongoing clash of Man's Law vs. God's Law, fans at Yellville-Summit High School in Arkansas emptied from the stadium's bleachers two weekends ago and rushed to the 50-yard line, kneeling and praying with cheerleaders, who had traded their pom-poms for banners bearing biblical passages. The local school board, which had voted to test the limits of the court decision, helped organize the students. Over in Knoxville, Tenn., Hannah Wood, 17, an assistant football trainer and chapter president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, persuaded 250 people to form a human prayer chain on the asphalt track around the football field. At her school, officials say they could not have stopped the protest from happening, even though the plan had been featured in the local paper.

These displays are rarely spontaneous. In Temple, Texas, for example, the No Pray, No Play group has a toll-free number (Press one for T shirts and merchandise; press two for media kits) to gin up support for the high school in the Texas town of Santa Fe that provoked the Supreme Court ban on student-led prayers last June. Response to the campaign has been mixed: some residents are eager to push the limits of the decision, but others resent agenda-minded outsiders who invite tens of thousands of people to attend home games and recite the Lord's Prayer. In Asheville, N.C., the group We Still Pray, led by pastor Ralph Sexton, filled a football stadium with 12,000 supporters at a rally last month to protest the Supreme Court ruling. The group is also circulating petitions to rewrite the U.S. Constitution.

These organizations and many school districts that agree with them are willing to take their chances with the court's wrath. They know that no smart politician will ever send in marshals to enforce the judicial order. "If I'm guilty of praying, I can live with that," says Dan Schlafer, a high school principal and devout Roman Catholic in Tellico Plains, Tenn., who was fired from coaching football after he refused to stop praying at games. He adds, "If this is anarchy, then perhaps we need more of it."

He might get his wish--in a manner he didn't anticipate. In Asheville, Ginger Stivelli, co-founder of the Appalachian Pagan Alliance, is demanding equal time. She has asked a school district for permission to hold a "We Still Work Magic" rally this month to coincide with the autumn equinox. To her glee, the district agreed. --With reporting by Paul Cuadros/ Asheville, Hilary Hylton/Santa Fe, Elisabeth Kauffman/Nashville and David Nordan/Atlanta


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Cover Date: September 18, 2000

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