Saturday, June 03, 2000

School Prayer Fractures Small Texas Town


SANTA FE, Texas -- To hell with you. Those nasty words might have been the furthest thing from 17-year-old Marian Ward's mind. But, for some, it was the precise message that boomed across the stadium PA system when Ward, daughter of a Baptist minister, defied a federal court order last September and grabbed a microphone to call on Jesus to help her kick off the football season.

The mostly Christian crowd went wild over Ward's bold prayer, which echoed all the way into the U.S. Supreme Court chambers, where two Santa Fe families -- one Mormon, one Catholic -- are arguing public high school football games are no place for open worship.

A court order has kept those families anonymous, but they are not lacking supporters who contend Ward's prayer had little do with God.

"It's about people not having respect for other people," says Amanda Bruce, a Catholic classmate of Ward.

Counters Ward: "It was never my intention to insult anyone else's religion . . . [but] it's something I really believe in. Not just religiously, but patriotic- ally."

The two girls now find themselves on the front lines of a raw constitutional brawl over freedom of religion and free speech.

Both sides point to the First Amendment, which states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech. . . ."

Ward and her backers in the school district contend that "freedom of speech" means students may address the crowd and say whatever they want before a football game, even a prayer. The families who have sued over the district policy argue such prayers are a violation of the "Establishment Clause" in the First Amendment, which they say prohibits government from promoting any religion.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon whether there is room in high school bleachers across America for the likes of Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed or Heavenly Father, but most folks in this thickly Christian town of about 9,800 already know the answer: Jesus gets tickets on the 50-yard line.

"If somebody gets offended by somebody praying, they just shouldn't listen," says Santa Fe barber Tommie Weaver, holding buzzing electric clippers and standing atop tufts of straw-like hair shorn from a sunburned boy.

"The government is trying to take the Lord out of our hearts and minds, and it's going to be the downfall of this country," says Weaver. "The devil is getting too much say here."

And some in this town, which is blessed with lush pastures and sweet, warm breezes from the nearby Gulf of Mexico, believe the devil has picked a Mormon family to do his evil work.

The Supreme Court case is just the latest battle in a five-year war the "Doe" families have waged with the Santa Fe Independent School District. In 1995, they turned to the American Civil Liberties Union with complaints that Christianity was being promoted in district classrooms, auditoriums, stadiums and hallways.

Once in court, plaintiffs revealed stories of Bibles passed out on school grounds, religious hymns sung in class and chaplain-led prayers at athletic events and graduation ceremonies.

In one episode the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals found particularly "disturbing," a seventh-grade history teacher handed out fliers in class advertising a Baptist religious revival. A Mormon student asked if non-Baptists could attend.

What religion are you? asked the teacher.

"Mormon," said the girl.

"That's a cult," replied the teacher, who then "launched into a diatribe about the non-Christian, cultlike nature of Mormonism and its general evils," according to court documents.

School district officials forced the teacher to apologize; he later left the job.

Because of the lawsuit, the school district has put an end to public worship and proselytizing on Santa Fe School District grounds, but the fight over student-led football prayer remains.

Other court battles have established students' rights to pray silently in class and hold prayer groups on public school grounds. While the Supreme Court has ruled against clergy-led prayer at public school graduations, courts in the deep South do allow student-led "nonsectarian" prayers at graduation ceremonies.

But the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Texas, ruled football games are different from graduation because they are "hardly the sober type of annual event that can be appropriately solemnized with prayer."

They are, the court ruled in a 2-1 vote, no place for public worship, even if it is student led.

Nonsense, says school board member John Couch, who has vowed to go to jail to keep alive the practice for the 4,300 students in his district.

"The whole crux of our argument is that this [prayer issue] needs to be left up to the students," says Couch. "It's a First Amendment issue, and if the students want to pray, then the school board, legislature, Congress or courts should have no say."

According to the district's policy, implemented since the Does' lawsuit, students vote on whether they want to have a "message" delivered over the microphone before home football games. Then students vote on who will deliver the message, and the elected student decides what he or she wants to say.

Marian Ward, now 18, chose to call on "Lord" and "Jesus" for a safe football season.

Hardly radical stuff, but the Doe families contend it is tantamount to state-sponsored prayer nonetheless. The system, they say, is set up to favor the evangelical Christians who dominate this town, and that means the government is "establishing" a preference for one religion.

"The problem is there are students who have different faiths and you are allowing the majority to decide whose faith will be the favorite faith [of] the state," says plaintiffs' attorney Anthony Griffin, who took the case as a volunteer for the ACLU.

Griffin found a sympathetic ear at the Appeals Court, which earlier this year ruled: "Prayers that a school 'merely' permits will still be delivered to a government-organized audience, by means of government-owned appliances and equipment, on government-controlled property, at a government-sponsored event."

School district officials like Couch remain undaunted and are confident the highest court in the land will have enough perspective to see the issue their way and put free speech above the "anti-Christian bigotry" that seems to be swelling in public schools across the country.

"What's at stake here is whether private citizens in the United States will have their free speech taken away," says Couch.

Santa Fe has a reputation in southeast Texas as a unique community, one that residents say struggles with growth and racial issues, but in ways this is a drama that could easily have the Wasatch Front for a backdrop. Utah, after all, is a place where the influence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stretches from the spired skylines to the gridwork of streets Mormon leader Brigham Young laid while building his 19th-century theocracy.

Today, watchdogs like the Utah ACLU keep a keen eye trained on the sometimes fuzzy lines that separate the church from the Beehive state, and religiously themed court fights seem a constant, whether the issue is high school choirs singing religious hymns or Salt Lake City's sale of a piece of Main Street to the Mormon church.

Without the courts, many argue, the dominant Mormon culture would swallow the rights of individuals who choose to live outside the prevailing faith.

"Tyranny of the majority," non-Mormons sometimes call it.

Those who enjoy membership in the majority are likely to simply call it "life."

Brigham Young University law professor Fred Gedicks has lived on both sides. A former resident of Macon, Ga., Gedicks remembers his Mormon beliefs being assailed annually during "cult awareness weeks" in that heavily Baptist state. It wasn't painful, but it was awkward, and that is why the Provo resident sees the Texas fight as "an important story for Utah."

"Where there is a large concentration of Mormons, we've lost a sense of how vulnerable minorities of any sort are," says Gedicks, an expert on church/state separation issues.

Gedicks says he would like to write the Texas Doe family a letter of encouragement, but that likely won't happen. The court has ordered the identity of the Doe families kept a secret to protect them from possible repercussions.

School board member Couch, meanwhile, looks to Utah for sympathy.

"I'd think most Mormons wouldn't have a problem with what we're doing," he says. "They have very high moral standards."

Maybe, but the Southern Baptists who dominate the culture in places like Santa Fe have a big problem with Mormonism.

Two years ago, thousands of Southern Baptists convened in Salt Lake City for their annual convention. Part of the weeklong event included thumping on doors to tout their beliefs.

On the surface, their message was positive: Accept Christ in your life. Amen, replied most of the Mormons who answered the door.

But the problem is Southern Baptists don't believe Mormons worship their version of Christ. And because of that, they believe Mormons are headed to hell.

Mormon theology, on the other hand, holds that one must be baptized in the LDS Church and receive LDS ordinances in order to achieve "the highest degree of glory," or heaven.

In other words, both religions believe they are the only ones passing out tickets to a happy afterlife, and that is one reason public prayer is so sticky; Marian Ward might have earnestly prayed for everybody in the stands and on the field, but that is not how everyone took her words.

"It underscores the point that it is not that easy to pray for each other in a religiously diverse society," says Gedicks.

Ward (who stresses that she does not believe that people of other faiths -- including Mormons -- are automatically headed to hell) argues her words shouldn't be censored because some might find them offensive.

Ward and her family countersued the district over its policy to restrict student free speech because they claimed the Does' lawsuit had created an anti-religious atmosphere at school where she was hassled for things like carrying a Bible and writing religiously themed essays.

"We're standing for everyone to be able to express their viewpoint," says Ward's father, Bob, a Baptist minister.

Marian Ward also notes that a Catholic classmate was elected to give the pregame "message," but she backed out at the last minute.

Hours before the fateful kickoff last September, Ward got a court injunction that ensured the school district could not punish her for turning to the Lord in her pregame address, something she feared the school would be compelled to do because of the lower court rulings.

"The only thing Baptist about my prayer was the fact that I go to a Baptist church," she says.

Classmate Amanda Bruce doesn't buy the argument that one prayer can fit all.

"I can guarantee you," Bruce wrote in a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, "had a Jewish prayer been said, everybody not Jewish would have been outraged."

For people on both sides of the fight, more than words are at stake.

Seventeen-year-old Santa Fe resident Danielle Mason says as a sixth-grader she refused a Gideon Bible when a group of adults passed them out at school and suffered physical abuse from her classmates because of it.

"I was pushed into lockers," says the former Baptist. "I was called a devil worshiper."

Mason says she became physically ill with shingles because of the stress.

"Teachers got after me, students got after me," she says. She eventually dropped out of school and has been home schooled since.

"Emotionally it hurt me, and I was of the predominant faith," says Mason. "How was it affecting people of other faiths?"

Mason's sister Tiffany, 19, remembers having a Mormon friend who was taunted to tears on the grade-school playground around the same time.

"They'd say she was in a cult," says Tiffany Mason. "They'd say she was going to hell."

The closest Mormon ward is in nearby La Marque. Some ward members contacted for this story report no hassles over their faith. Others have different experiences.

"This is the Bible Belt," says Randy Rhoads, a father of 10, two of whom are BYU graduates. "And we're preached against in the pulpits."

He says the occasional discrimination doesn't bug him, but it can be hard on the family.

"We had [neighborhood] kids running through our hair when we first moved here," he says. "Then the neighbors heard that we were Mormons."

But then there is Sarah Morrill, 19, who graduated from Santa Fe High School in 1999 and just completed her freshman year at BYU.

She considers her hometown more religiously tolerant than Provo.

"As long as you are religious in some way around here, that is fine," she says of Santa Fe. In Provo, she says, "the pressure to become a Mormon is very strong, and probably too strong."

But many would say residents of Santa Fe and Provo have one thing in common -- they have a sense that their community is a rock in a crumbling American society.

Sitting in the bleachers of the local Little League baseball complex and cheering on the budding sluggers, Santa Fe school board member Couch calls it a "compliment" that the town resembles a community from the 1950s.

"There are a lot of good values from the '50s," he says. "There are lot of people here who wouldn't mind taking a step back."

Couch notes that American culture has progressed in racial tolerance during the past several decades, but, in general, it is clear he longs for the past.

He points to the 1962 Supreme Court ruling that first banned prayer in public classrooms.

"Since that time, there has been an increase in sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancies and school violence," he says, sporting a San Francisco Giants jersey and cap -- the uniform worn by the preteen team he coaches. "At the same time, test scores have dropped. It can all be traced back to that point. It is no mistake."

That is why Couch says he is willing to go to jail to keep God in public schools.

"This isn't a matter of win or lose," says Couch. "It's a matter of right or wrong."

But many in the surrounding towns find Santa Fe a peculiar community to be waging a moral war.

"I hate that place," says 29-year-old Ricky Passino, a blue-eyed bald man with a tough-guy goatee who works as a waiter in La Marque.

The reason?

"Bigotry," he says. "Flat out bigotry."

"Ask somebody who is black, off the street," Passino continues. "Ask him 'How often do you go to Santa Fe?' Watch their face. Watch their face."

Kevin Walker, an African American, just smiles when asked if he has ever visited Santa Fe. Then he shakes his head.

"I've been there a few times. It's a redneck town," he says, sweating hard and smoking a cigarette as he takes a break from shoveling mulch onto the base of a twiggy tree along Interstate 45, just three miles from the Santa Fe city limits. "It just ain't progressed at all."

The one stop in town the 29-year-old remembers didn't last long. He went there for an Alcoholics Anonymous dance.

"To make a long story short," he says, "I just didn't feel comfortable at all."

He is evidently not alone. U.S. Census figures from 1990 show Santa Fe has nine black residents, about a tenth of a percent of the population. In the city next door, blacks make up nearly half the population.

"I'm not going to lie to you," says Bruce, Ward's classmate. "The people who have lived here for a while are very old-fashioned and Confederate-flag proud."

At the same time, Bruce says the few African-American children in the school system are treated well, and most here say racial tolerance is increasing.

Still, this is a place where the ugliest of racial slurs rips through the smoke and chatter at an area bar loaded with white men.

"Do you know how many blacks we have in the schools here?" asks a grinning patron at the bar. "Maybe two. They just don't like it here."

And just Friday, Texas media reported three Santa Fe high school students were charged for making "terroristic threats" against a 13-year-old Jewish boy. The boy's father says his son had long suffered verbal abuse at school.

"It started when he was in seventh grade," Eric Nevelow told The Texas City Sun. Students would surround his boy, Nevelow says, and yell, "Hitler missed one. He should have killed you too."

Nevelow says he complained to school officials, but they did nothing. He turned to the law after the high school students threatened to hang the boy.

Less than 20 minutes from the Houston metropolitan area, it is likely this one-time dairy town is headed for profound demographic and economic changes as the big Texas city inexorably sprawls. The next few decades are bound to bring more people, more chain-owned businesses, more diversity.

And some say that is adding to the fear and controversy here.

BYU's Gedicks notes he has seen plenty of public school prayer fights, and he says they typically have little to do with "authentic worship."

"Too often," says Gedicks, "public school prayer is used by people to signal who is in charge, culturally."

Copyright 2000, The Salt Lake Tribune All material found on Utah OnLine is copyrighted The Salt Lake Tribune and associated news services. No material may be reproduced or reused without explicit permission from The Salt Lake Tribune.



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