VALDOSTA — With the Lowndes High Vikings ready to take on Parkview High School, Friday night seemed like another evening of high school football at Martin Stadium.
Seniors Taylor Slocumb and Will Steinberg even showed up a few minutes early to take part in a tradition that has taken place at LHS football games for almost as long as the school has existed: Prayer before football.
At every home game, just before kickoff, LHS starts with a moment of silence followed by student-led prayer.
Until last Friday evening.
There was no student-led prayer.
Slocumb, Steinberg and many Christian LHS students and fans believe it’s part of the football tradition under the Friday night lights.
“It was just so bizarre to not hear prayer,” Steinberg said.
Lacking any religious message, Steinberg described the moment as more of a “hype statement.”
He said he felt as if his Christian views were being compromised.
According to the larger-than-usual crowd at the Lowndes County Board of Education meeting Monday evening, many others did, too.
A standing-room-only crowd of football night prayer supporters, including Steinberg and Slocumb, voiced their opinions.
Prayer has “always been done, and we live in an area where God is put above a lot of other things,” Slocumb said. “To have it taken away from us, it’s something I wanted to fight for.”
The crowd even loudly shouted “God” during the Pledge of Allegiance at the board meeting and the board was prepared with a statement and a copy of the Supreme Court ruling, Santa Fe Independent School District v. DOE, which ruled in 2000 that student-led and initiated prayer at football games violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
The issue stemmed from a letter sent to Warren Turner, Lowndes County Schools attorney, from the Freedom From Religion Foundation stating “the district must take immediate action to end the practice of scheduling prayer at school-sponsored events and end the use of district equipment to project prayers to the public.”
The letter, sent from Christopher Line, a Patrick O’Reiley legal fellow, Aug. 30, was the result of a concerned Lowndes County school parent who contacted the nonprofit foundation about the football game prayer.
Turner said he received the letter Sept. 4, so the Sept. 6 football game would have been the first football game to go without prayer since receiving the letter.
Lowndes School Superintendent Wes Taylor said the school system is doing its best to accommodate the views of Lowndes County students, parents and fans while also following the law, which states government bodies cannot establish an official religion or favor one religion over other religions and non-religion.
Because Lowndes County Schools is state-run and receives taxes to perform duties, it is subject to follow the First Amendment Establishment Clause.
However, prayer before football has been a long-standing tradition for the school. It has been for most schools in South Georgia, including Valdosta High School.
“We are working diligently with legal counsel before the next home football game, which is the following Friday night, to have a plan in place in terms of the issue we’re all dealing with that we can all be happy with and agree on and yet abide by the Constitution as well as the law,” Taylor said.
The next home game is Sept. 20.
The next school board meeting is much sooner, and the crowd attending the Monday meeting plans to return to voice concerns and respond to the board’s decision.
Joe Copeland, an LHS graduate and parent of LHS graduates, said he is angry with what took place Friday night.
He will be back, and he said he will fight to keep prayer at the LHS football games.
“It’s time for Christians to stand up for what is right and to stand up for God,” Copeland said. “When you quit talking to God, it’s going to go bad.”
Katelyn Umholtz is a reporter with the Valdosta Daily Times. She can be contacted at (229)244-3400 ext. 1256.