Originally created 08/11/00

Tradition of school threatened



JOHNSTON, S.C. - When the Strom Thurmond High School Rebels take the field this fall, they might play the first football game in school history that does not begin with a prayer.

Edgefield County School Superintendent Sharon Keesley is debating whether to abide by a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that prohibits student-led prayer before football games.

In June, the court ruled 6-3 in a Galveston, Texas, case that public schools cannot allow student-initiated prayer before high school football games, a decision that reinforces the principle of separation of church and state.

The ruling jeopardizes a long-standing tradition at Strom Thurmond High, where prayer has been said over the public address system before every home football game.

"I think it's the worst decision (the U.S. Supreme Court) has ever made, and I wish it would be overturned," Dr. Keesley said. "Although it's not a law passed on to us, it is a Supreme Court decision."

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the following for the majority:

"Even if we regard every high school student's decision to attend a home football game as purely voluntary, we are nevertheless persuaded that the delivery of a pregame prayer has the improper effect of coercing those present to participate in an act of religious worship."

Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote the dissenting opinion, accusing the majority of "distorting existing precedent" to rule that the policy violated the First Amendment, which gives the freedom of speech.

Dr. Keesley said she does not understand why the court's decision does not affect prayer before other high school sports, such as soccer, volleyball and basketball.One alternative is a lawyer-approved "athletic creed." Several schools across the state, including those in Marion County, already use it.

Aiken County stopped prayer before high school football games in 1992, school board attorney William Burkhalter said. Federal court decisions, which dealt directly with the issue, prompted the administration to make that change, he said.

"I knew the federal cases would probably be upheld if they ever got to the Supreme Court," Mr. Burkhalter said.

"Once the decision has been publicly announced, and you allow that practice to continue, it can mean personal liability for board members and administrators," he said.

Dr. Keesley said she will consider options, including the creed, and advise the county school board of her recommendation.

"I'm really trying to come up with a compromise that will suit everyone, and I think we can do that," she said.

Reach Katie Throne at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.