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Prayer debate has its genesis in times past

The recent debates over school prayer may be new in terms of the scope of public interest, but not in terms of the long legal dispute.

The Citrus High School graduating class was assembled on the field, with students waiting for that chance to change their tassels and toss their caps.

On the loudspeaker, a local minister was addressing the assembly. In the midst of his prayer, he told those assembled to raise their voices and repeat after him, "Praise Jesus."

Many in the crowd complied.

School officials winced, making mental notes to not invite the minister back.

But no one made a public issue of obvious endorsement of the Christian viewpoint.

In 1989, just a few years after that graduation ceremony took place, a federal appellate court ended prayer at the community's public school athletic events. And in 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court ended official-sponsored prayers at graduation.

While the most recent school district debates about prayer and religion in school have taken on a scope of interest unlike anything the district has seen before, they are nothing new.

Rather, they stand as just another chapter in the evolving church and state legal debate.

The Citrus public schools have been caught up in that debate in many ways, ranging from a rancorous fight over a dragon puppet and the curriculum it was used to teach to disputes over Christian buttons that school staff wore during Christmas.

Even the recently hot topic of prayer at board meetings had its genesis in a kind of defiance by another board years ago.

School Board Chairwoman Patience Nave said last week that the board has been praying for more than 30 years. But some people have a different recollection.

The School Board meeting minutes do not always reflect when prayers were given at board meetings. Officials who served with the district at that time have differing recollections of when prayers were regularly offered.

Newspaper reports note that the board, which had not been giving regular invocations for several years, began praying regularly in late 1989 in response to the court ruling that ended prayer at athletic events.

When the ruling on graduation prayer came down a couple of years later, then-board member Ruthann Derrico expressed dismay. She said at the time that the ruling simply meant that the school district had to begin looking for loopholes.

Elected officials weren't the only ones who took a stand on religion's place in public schools. And they weren't the only ones who had to change their practices when citizens called them into question.

In 1985, the district put a halt to the distribution of Gideon Bibles by a former school principal to fifth graders at Crystal River Middle School after a parent who also was the president of the school's advisory council complained.

"It violates all kinds of things," the parent, Paul Vogel, had said. "It bothers me as a parent very much. It bothers me because it violates religion in school" laws.

The distribution ended, but former superintendent Carl Austin said the complaint didn't really end the practice of making the Bibles available. He said the Bibles were then placed into a particular spot in the schools and students were told where they could go pick one up if they wanted it.

What community wants

versus edicts of law

In 1986, a Crystal River Primary School teacher was forbidden from continuing her long-standing practice of praying a simple prayer with her students before lunch after a parent complaint. Then-principal Ben Branch said, "Personally I don't see any problem with saying "God is great. God is good. Let us thank him for our food.'

"

At the time, Austin said he wasn't surprised prayer still was being said in schools, even though it had been years since the 1962 U.S. Supreme Court ruling banning prayer in public schools.

"I recognize that laws are laws and they're applicable to all folks. On the other hand, there are beliefs and local customs that dictate how closely you observe some mandates and edicts," he said.

The issue of religious expression in the schools cropped up again in 1989 when, just months after prayer ended at athletic events, the American Atheists of Tampa Bay asked the School Board to stop reciting the Pledge of Allegiance because of the phrase "one nation, under God."

The board rejected the request.

A month later, Lecanto Primary School Principal Steve Guyler faced criticism for asking a half dozen teachers and aides at his school to stop wearing pins proclaiming "Jesus is the Reason for the Season" just before the winter break.

Then-board member David Watson said he did not believe that Guyler was anti-religion. "I'm sure he is not against religion and that his motivation was to protect the school system against potential litigation," Watson said. "I don't think it's really a clearly-defined area. The courts seem to be saying don't do anything that smacks of religion and yet that's not what the community wants. It's a dilemma."

In 1992, the Citrus Times surveyed the county's teachers on a variety of topics including prayer in the schools. Half of the district's then 800-person teaching staff responded. Overwhelmingly, despite the court rulings, teachers wanted to see Bible study, prayer, or at the very least a moment of silence, in the schools.

Nearly half the teachers who responded wanted to see Bible reading in the classroom. And 44 percent agreed that organized prayer of some sort should be allowed. Moments of silence were supported by nearly 90 percent of the respondents.

"Teachers are afraid to mention the word God or Jesus Christ in school," one teacher wrote on the survey. "This teaching is desperately needed for many kids who have no hope. The sex and violence is what will be the downfall of the system."

At the time, Austin said it had been tough to comply with the law on those points, especially in a place that was still very much in the Bible Belt.

"Our teachers pretty much reflect our community. In this, they pretty much feel robbed of a right," Austin said. "Sometimes, it knots your stomach to have to comply."

Just a year after the Supreme Court determined that schools could not allow ministers or other adults to lead prayer at graduations in 1992, the graduation ceremony at Lakeview School ended with a minister praying a prayer. School officials called the incident an oversight and agreed to be sure it didn't happen again.

The issue was again resurrected in 1994 when the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue the School Board over graduation prayer at Citrus High School's graduation that year, questioning whether the prayer there was actually student initiated or whether school officials had organized it.

Later in the same year, the ACLU threatened again, this time over an honor roll ceremony conducted by the Homosassa Elementary School at a local church. A minister and the assistant superintendent each gave invocations at the event.

No lawsuits were ever filed over those issues and officials said they would comply with the law.

Later in 1994, the appearance of a puppet dragon named Pumsy and a cartoon dolphin namedDUSO ignited one of the most rancorous debates on religion and the public schools in recent memory.

Debate pitted parents

against educators

Christian groups urged the district to end the self-esteem promoting program saying that it was leading students toward "new age" kinds of ideals. Instead, the district needed to promote student self esteem by helping them succeed in their classroom subjects, the parents argued.

The debate pitted parents against educators who said they needed to be able to use tools such as the self-esteem promoting curriculum. Hundreds of parents in a host of meetings fought the program, which prompted more than a year of discussion about what teaching techniques should be allowed.

Austin said the various religion debates over the years had created dilemmas for school officials, but that seemed only natural in the Citrus community.

"You have to recognize the fact that the nature of our community is one that is very conservative when it deals with religion and even moreso years ago than it is now," Austin said.

Derrico, who served on the board from 1984 through 1996, frequently sided with those who wanted to see prayer and religion maintain a place in the schools. She said she recalled feeling sad that the School Board had not always prayed but she was not comfortable making a motion about the idea until another like-minded board member took office a few years after she was elected.

Even given all the controversy on the subject lately, Derrico said she didn't regret pushing the issue when she finally did. "I believe in prayer," she said. "I believe we don't have enough of it."

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.

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