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Some came to pray, not to play; But game noise at Santa Fe is hard to beat

by John Tedesco
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All content (c) San Antonio Express-News

SANTA FE — Several hundred people shouted in prayer Friday night in this Southeast Texas town, trying to make their voices heard.

But the pomp of opening night of high school football season accomplished what lawyers, judges and the U.S. Supreme Court could not.

The Lord’s Prayer, recited by scattered pockets of fans, was all but drowned out amid the din of bullhorns, screaming students and a high school marching band.

“It was too quick,” said Aurora Rodriguez, 38. “I hope everybody prayed from their heart and not just to be heard.”

During the weeks preceding Friday’s game between the Santa Fe Fighting Indians and the Hitchcock Bulldogs, thousands of students and parents across the South have prayed at football games in similar fashion – spontaneously.

Weeks of passionate rhetoric on talk-radio shows and other mediums seemed to indicate the Southeast Texas school district would be the scene of a grand demonstration. It never materialized.

In Santa Fe, a town of 8,400 people that was ground zero in the dispute over God and high school football, the day held special significance for many Christians, some of whom drove from as far away as Temple in Central Texas to be in the stadium between Houston and Galveston.

Four years ago, two students – a Mormon and a Catholic – sought a temporary restraining order against the Santa Fe School District to prevent a prayer from being delivered at the high school’s graduation ceremony.

The students, whose identities were kept secret to avoid harassment, accused school officials of promoting Christianity and snubbing those who held minority religious beliefs.

In addition to graduation, the students also contested the school’s practice of allowing a student chaplain to deliver prayers over the public address system before varsity football games.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded last year that graduation ceremonies were significant, “once in a lifetime” events in which nonsectarian prayers were allowable.

Sporting events, on the other hand, were “hardly the sober type of annual event that can be appropriately solemnized with prayer,” the court decreed.

The school district petitioned the Supreme Court, and the high court in June affirmed the appellate court’s ruling.

But the decision sparked a movement among Christians seeking to stem the tide of secularism they say has flooded society.

On Friday, the crowd was more than 4,000 strong, according to school officials – a turnout that almost filled the high school’s new stadium.

But the event also was filled with artificial hype caused by roving television crews who, in a vain attempt to find a story, descended upon the few people who did pray.

Many Christians were drawn to Santa Fe largely because of the efforts of Kody Shed, a 27-year-old Temple resident who started the organization “No Pray No Play.”

Shed’s Web site, nopraynoplay.org, has been visited more than 45,000 times since June 19, the day of the Supreme Court ruling and the same day Shed registered the Internet address.

Shed described the rally as no less than a holy war, calling for an “army of prayer warriors” to descend upon Santa Fe and let their prayers be heard.

“No Pray No Play,” which has the support of several local ministers, agrees with the Supreme Court that a public school should not promote religion, but says Christians have a First Amendment right to pray informally.

Shed wasn’t present at the event, said his pastor, David Newsome. But members of his congregation at Cornerstone Christian Fellowship came in droves.

“It’s part of our culture,” Newsome said of prayer before football games. “We’re not pushing people around.”

Superintendent Richard Ownby wished the out-of-towners would stay home.

“Our community has been divided enough by outsiders,” Ownby said.

The school district is in a “no win situation,” Ownby said. It has been sued by students who oppose prayer at school functions, and sued by a student who demanded prayer at school functions.

Left to their own devices, some Santa Fe students would have prayed informally before Friday’s game, Ownby said.

However, with the intense anticipation fanned by Shed and the resulting media attention, the town has been mired in controversy and left with a religious label that some residents find discomfiting.

“I don’t think our school district has any liability in this,” Ownby said of Friday’s spontaneous prayers. “This is not our doing.”

Observers said the spontaneous prayers probably didn’t violate the Supreme Court’s ruling because school officials weren’t involved with the gathering. But, the commentators added, the effect of a mass prayer on students who don’t believe in Christianity could be just as disturbing.

“Many people who are in favor of public prayer believe it will influence behavior patterns and the values of society at large,” said Robert Lemmick, president and CEO of Religion in American Life, a New Jersey association that promotes religious plurality.

“That may be true,” Lemmick said by phone. “But on the other hand, are we willing to sacrifice the freedom of conscience of some individuals for the sake of demanding, or even coercing, conformity? I think that’s a key question.”

Joe Krauskopf, head football coach and athletic director of Santa Fe High School, said his team of 40 players was mostly unfazed by the mass attention to the first game of the season.

Most of the students on the team were seniors, and the controversy surrounding the school was nothing new to them.

“Whatever happens, happens. At 7:30, we’re playing football,” Krauskopf said before the game.

The rivalry between Santa Fe and Hitchcock, which are about three miles apart on Highway 6 in Galveston County, seemed to consume the attention of fans far more than the issue of prayer.

“The Battle of Highway 6,” as students call it, was played on a new high school campus in a 4,800-seat stadium. The field was mildly pockmarked with dirt patches. Before Friday, even the home team hadn’t set foot on the drought-stricken turf in an attempt by the athletics department to let new grass grow.

“You pray for them not to get hurt,” said Amy Diaz, a 16-year-old junior at Santa Fe. “I think it’s good. You’re not praying for them to win or lose.”

Wilbur Baker, a Santa Fe resident who played fullback for the Indians in 1955, said “We always prayed before games.”

“Religion’s been here for years,” Baker said. “Government should get a little religion itself.”

jtedesco @ express-news.net

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