Without a Prayer

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"Almighty God, we ask that you bless our parents, teachers and country throughout the day. In your name we pray. Amen."

Those 21 words brought not a blessing but an immediate curse upon Bishop Knox, principal of Wingfield High School in Jackson, Mississippi. Last month Knox allowed the prayer to be read over the school's public address system after students had voted 490 to 96 for it. But for Jackson school officials that was an unforgivable trespass by religion into secular territory. Knox was fired.

His supporters, however, are trying to turn his dismissal into a blessing in disguise. Last week hundreds of students staged walkouts in Jackson and in such cities as Tupelo and Hattiesburg. About 4,000 supporters cheered and clapped at a pro-prayer rally at the state capitol. The demonstrations have been attended by both blacks and whites -- a rare confluence of sympathies in the South. Members of the religious right hope to turn this popular support for a black educator into a nationwide movement to undo the Supreme Court's declaration that school prayer is unconstitutional. Says Mississippi Governor Kirk Fordice, who supports the movement: "If we keep on with what started in Jackson, Mississippi, one day, I hope soon, it's not going to be legal to keep prayer out of public schools."

Fordice can expect plenty of amens to that in Jackson. According to a 1993 survey by Standard Rate & Data Service and National Demographics & Lifestyles, 37% of households in the area participate in Bible studies, one of the highest rates in the U.S. (The figure for Los Angeles, for example, is 14%.) Furthermore, 97% of 2,500 residents polled by phone by Jackson's daily Clarion-Ledger said Knox should not have been fired. Says Republican state senator Mike Gunn: "Christians feel, rightfully so, that there has been an assault on our Christian commitment, on our Christianity."

In 1962 the U.S. Supreme Court, citing the principle of separation of church and state, barred compulsory prayer in public schools. Knox, however, believes he kept within judicial guidelines set in 1992 when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans ruled that prayer was permissible at graduation ceremonies if it was nonproselytizing, nonsectarian, student initiated and student led. Thus, when students approached him about praying in school, the principal, a born-again Christian, allowed them to take a vote on the issue. Moreover, the text of the prayer read at Wingfield High refers to no specific religion or god. Knox, however, ignored a school lawyer's warning that he was contravening the Constitution. After the prayer was read, Knox was placed on leave and then fired. The former principal, citing the Court of Appeals decision, insists, "I have done nothing wrong."

The American Family Association, which is headed by right-wing evangelist Donald Wildmon, is supplying Knox with an attorney who hopes to file a lawsuit on behalf of the students and perhaps take it all the way to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Governor Fordice, a Republican who once raised a national uproar by referring to America as "a Christian nation," is zealously exploiting the issue, declaring, "Any place that Americans want to pray ought to be the place for prayer."

Fordice's critics say prayer is already allowed in schools: students may pray silently by themselves; they just can't force others to join them. At Wingfield, however, even though 96 kids voted against the measure, everyone had to listen. Says Lynn Watkins, director of the Mississippi American Civil Liberties Union: "What ((Fordice)) wishes to see is his view of religious freedom, which invades and tramples the rights of others." Some black leaders are wary that black supporters of the drive for school prayer are being sold antebellum values cloaked as piety.

But for the many supporters of school prayer, the issue is values, not constitutionality. Last week, on a cool, cloudy morning outside Wingfield High School, a group of students gathered privately, as they do every morning shortly before school starts, to hold hands around the flagpole and intone the Lord's Prayer. Among them was junior Stacie Dennis, for whom prayer is an answer, not a problem. "We need it 'cause of all this violence and stuff," she said. "You didn't see all this violence in school when they were praying at school." A classmate, Jamie Meadows, agreed: "It won't hurt anything." Knox too believes prayer can help alleviate problems brought on by guns, gangs, drugs and despair. "I faced the test," he said last week. "And I have stood on what I believe."