Pray

In a small town south of Houston, they say school prayer is a matter of religious freedom. But even in Santa Fe, freedom for one student can be tyranny for another.

As for those who don't share the mainstream's religious beliefs, Lopez says he doubts that exposure to Christian prayer will do them any harm. Young people today are bombarded with peer pressure and harmful messages about drugs, alcohol, sex and gangs, Lopez says. "Homosexuals, ethnic minorities and feminists can say what they want when they want to. You tell me a 17-year-old kid offering up a prayer on graduation night is a violation of rights?"

"It seems so innocent," says Galveston lawyer Anthony Griffin, who represents the two anonymous Santa Fe plaintiffs for the ACLU, "to say, 'All we want to do is pray.' On the other hand, what if you have a child of a different faith or a nonbeliever? We're placing that child in the midst of 30 other kids [in a town like Santa Fe] and even if we're real nice, and not saying a deity, it's a given who the deity is." No matter how pure the group's spirituality, says Griffin, who opposes prayer at graduation, football games and other school-sponsored events, "you are subjecting that child to tyranny of the majority." That, Griffin argues, is what Santa Fe has already done to his two anonymous clients, whom he says feel physically endangered, and any other child in Santa Fe who is non-Baptist or simply a nonbeliever.

Graduation and football prayers, actually, are just minor points in the lawsuit. More serious, the ACLU contends, is what it calls Santa Fe's pattern, over at least two years, of other religion-linked violations in the schoolroom. The court papers enumerate. There was the annual distribution of Gideon Bibles -- not in itself illegal, if other groups were welcome to hand out literature, too. But, says the ACLU's Debbie Perky, that didn't seem to occur.

There was the teacher who told a Mormon child his religion was a cult, and a teacher who asked parents' permission to teach a sign-language song about Jesus, then made the two students without permission wait alone outdoors while their classmates learned the song.

There was the promotion and establishment during school hours of the religious "Joy Club," run by a Santa Fe teacher; the teacher who sent parents a note citing a national study that "students with strong religious background are the most likely to succeed in school." There was the pre-lunchtime class taught to sing, "Oh the Lord is good to me .... The Lord is good to me. Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen. Dig in!" Other complaints surfaced later, in oral arguments before the judge: grade-school spelling lists with words like "resurrection" and "savior" demonstrated in doctrinal phrases by a teacher and unconfirmed reports of straight-out class prayer.

Gary Causey, the principal of Santa Fe High, argues that practices such as the Gideon handouts have gone on for generations in Bible belt towns, and that the district always did its duty by addressing infractions when they arose. The teacher who called Mormonism a "cult" received a prompt, written reprimand, he points out, and the sign language song was discontinued as soon as a parent complained.

But to Margaret Snively, a Catholic and one of about five parents who publicly oppose the school board on religious issues, that piecemeal approach isn't enough. She believes religious culture belongs at home, and she resents what she sees as SFISD's pervasive meddling with her own teachings. "My children say the Hail Mary," says Snively. "If you tell a class to sing before lunch, and it has Jesus and amen in it, well it sounds like a prayer." If anything, Snively says, she wants her children to pray more formally, with words that reflect their own faith.

Snively also doesn't buy the arguments that a little religion in a school setting can set children of whatever faith on the right path. Not only school officials espouse this theory: None other than Judge Kent, who professes to have agonized over how to be fair to both sides in the case, says, "I think prayer has a place in education. If for no other reason, look around. We're living in a society where the breakdown of family values are evident. The breakdown is, what if families aren't up to the task of [moral education]? There are absent parents, parents in prison, parents in extremis circumstances."

But Snively, a big woman with coppery red hair, believes that Santa Fe's passion for religion in school only hides the town's real social problems. Snively recalls attending schools in Santa Fe in the years before the 1962 Supreme Court ruling outlawed class prayer.

When she was in eighth grade, Snively recalls, she took a class with a teacher who had been born again. The teacher wouldn't let the class leave until they had all prayed. "At the same time, a girl in our class was getting the shit beaten out of her," Snively recalls. "For 12 years, we saw that girl come to school with bruises and no one ever asked questions about it." Similarly, at a school board meeting last April, a man she'd known from childhood told the group that he might not have wasted his life on drinking and drugs if he had been exposed to school prayer.

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