By Kevin Hogencamp
One of Lee County High School’s biggest football games ever this Friday night, which is sure to be nail-biter, may feature the largest group prayer in Leesburg’s history. But the participants won’t necessarily be asking God for an upset victory for the upstart Trojans over perennial national powerhouse Northside-Warner Robins.
Rather, the Board of Education’s a decision to prohibit the traditional student-led recital of the Lord’s Prayer before football games has led local Christians to plan a massive, unified recital of the prayer at Friday’s home game for the upstart 5-0 Trojans, who are off to one of their best starts in school history (see Story, Page B4).
The board Sept. 27 decision to replace the prayer recital with a “moment of silence” followed a discussion that occurred without fanfare or an advertised public hearing. It was prompted by a complaint that the pre-football game ritual violates a student’s civil liberties.
Superintendent Larry Walters, Lee County High Principal Kevin Dowling, and board Chairperson Sylvia Vann did not return The Albany Journal’s messages Tuesday. Assistant Superintendent Mike Davis was reached, but deferred to Walters.
Residents of Lee County and throughout the Albany area are encouraging the community to respond to the school board’s decision by uniting as Christians. A Facebook page titled “Lord’s Prayer during the Moment of Silence at Lee County Football Games.”
“This is a student initiative to stand and say the Lord’s Prayer together during the moment of silence at every home football game,” according to the Facebook page’s originator, who is not identified. “Will you be bold in your faith and step out to let your friends and school know that we serve an awesome God?”
Elsewhere on Facebook, many area residents say the issue is calling them to act.
“I’m passing the word to all of my friends,” said Lisa Stuckey. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the stands were overflowing with Christians praying the Lord’s Prayer? Even if you don’t care to stay for the game, it will be the best money you ever spend to spread God’s word.”
Several local people, meanwhile, said during debates on the topic on Facebook that they support the school board’s decision. None, however, immediately agreed to have their posts printed in the Journal.
Steve Owens said the board’s decision made him sad, adding, “I am sure glad that Jesus Christ didn’t decide to have a moment of silence. Instead, He said, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’”
Local resident Bubba Ivey, a former Auburn University football player who is active in the local Fellowship of Christian Athletes, said the issue provides a great opportunity for Christians to unite.
“If you have enough faith to take a stand. Stand for something or you will fall for anything. Isn’t that what the song lyrics say?” he said.
Another local resident, Kyle Folds says he doesn’t understand the objection to prayer at public events.
“If praying offends you, don’t participate. It offends me when praying is not allowed,” he said.
Owens, who says he will attend Friday’s game and enthusiastically participate in the Lord’s Prayer during the time designated as a moment of silence, says he considers prayer to be “a freedom.”
“People have the right to believe whatever they want when they want,” he said. “It’s up to them to respect others and their beliefs, as well. Don’t shut down prayer because someone got offended …
“It is just proof that people out there are oversensitive to topics such as religion. People need to look back at what this nation was founded upon and stop being so critical.
The issue is one that has been debated nationwide. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a Texas case that prayer doesn’t belong in public schools, even if students initiate and lead the prayers. That case also was over whether prayers could be broadcast over the public address system before football games.
The central question was whether allowing prayer violates the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which states that Congress “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
“We recognize the important role that public worship plays in many communities, as well as the sincere desire to include public prayer as a part of various occasions so as to mark those occasions’ significance,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority. “But such religious activity in public schools, as elsewhere, must comport with the First Amendment.”
Last year, the Santa Rosa County, Fla., school system signed a consent decree with the American Civil Liberties Union following a similar situation, students began leading the crowd in the Lord’s Prayer at home football games.
“These are really less prayers at football games and really protest prayers,” First Amendment Center senior scholar Charles Haynes told a newspaper. “(They’re saying), ‘We feel that our rights have been taken away and we want everyone to know we are still praying.’”
The school system spent more than $440,000 during the court dispute.