No praying at Red Carpet Bowl, district says

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 25, 2000

The 37th Annual Red Carpet Bowl in Vicksburg tonight won’t have something the first 36 did. No scratchy admonition to “bow your heads” will be spoken over the PA system.

“There will be no prayer initiated by the Vicksburg Warren School District,” said athletic director Lum Wright Jr.

The change follows the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June barring public school officials from continuing what had been a common practice letting students lead stadium crowds in prayer.

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That case, brought by a Catholic family and a Mormon family against a Texas school, rejected the idea that football game prayer was not a state endorsement of religion if led by a student at a school-related event where attendance is not required.

“I think it’s wrong. They’ve always done it in past years, and never had a complaint,” said Andre Bennett, a Vicksburg football player and a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. “I’m still going to do my personal prayer before the game, even if they don’t do it over the PA.”

Added fellow athlete Robert Lewis: “It brings comfort to everybody knowing somebody is praying for them.”

But David Heard said he understands that non-Christians have rights that should be respected. He said people will still be able to pray individually if they want.

Lester Walls, a Jackson representative of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, was at Thursday’s practice to encourage athletes to commit to playing without using drugs or alcohol.

Walls said prayer at football games is especially important because of the risk of injury to the players in the games.

Once away from the students, he said that he had heard on the radio that in many areas, fans were planning to recite the Lord’s Prayer after the national anthem, with no prompting from school officials.

“What are they going to do, take everybody to jail?” Walls said.

At a high school football game scheduled to be played in Bogue Chitto tonight, community members had been planning to circumvent the ruling by holding a “spontaneous” recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in the stands before the game. But the deaths of three Bogue Chitto high school students in two separate accidents Wednesday night may cause that game to be rescheduled.

Mississippi ACLU leader David Ingebretsen has called the planned display in Bogue Chitto a violation of the court’s ruling.

In Vicksburg, Wright said the district has no plans to challenge the new law of the land as defined down by the court.

And the no-prayer-leading rule extends to the sidelines. “The coaches have been told not to be in the middle of a prayer or to initiate one,” Wright said. “Everybody’s been made aware of what they can and can’t do.”

The prayer prohibition does not extend to private or parochial schools such as St. Aloysius or Porters Chapel, and public school players are free to pray if they want to as long as coaches and administrators because they are deemed to be agents of the government stand to the side.

Alonzo Stevens, a Vicksburg football coach and adviser for the school’s FCA chapter, said he was hurt that the tradition of the pregame prayer would not continue.

“I don’t want to break the law,” Stevens said. “But we need prayer.”