By Joseph Harkins
BREMEN, Ga. -- For years, residents in west Georgia have been living on a prayer before the start of local high school football games.
“I was sort of flabbergasted when I got the phone call,” said Pastor Mason Bush, of the Providence Baptist Church, who has led the local pre-game prayer for the past 15 years, appealing to country, freedom and the safety of student-athletes in each invocation
Mason was told that he would no longer be the team chaplain for the Haralson County High School Rebels nor would there be any pre-game prayers during the football season. Rather than answer to anticipated lawsuits, the school district instead decided to pull the plug on prayer and succumb to charges from a Wisconsin-based watchdog organization that cited constitutional violations in a letter to the superintendent.
Not ready to fumble away their pregame ritual, some residents have decided to make a statement in favor of prayer when the Rebels play their first game of the season tonight.
A crowd of more than 3,000 residents is expected to join in lawful prayer before the game, despite the school district’s decision and the complaint of a single Harlan resident who alerted the Freedom From Religion Foundation of the alleged misuse of separation of church and state laws.
Upset county residents said they will not back down.
“Can the minority rule what we do in this country now,” said Dan Pope, a resident of Harlan County. “It’s a slow chipping away. All of our freedoms are slowly being chipped away.”
Local store owners Greg and Deanne Wilson are making and selling t-shirts that claim, "Proud to be a Rebel – I still pray," along with a reference to Bible verse James 5:16 on a football helmet.
Greg Wilson said, “It’s the first thing when they (shoppers) come in. Where’s the prayer service. We want the prayer service.”
Deanne Wilson is also urging residents to attend the service.
"Prayer has never hurt anyone,” she said. “If you don't want to pray, don't bow your head."
Brett Stanton, Haralson County's superintendent of schools, released a statement, which said, "Personally, it saddens me since my faith is a very important part of my life. However, from a professional standpoint, as superintendent of Haralson County schools, I have a responsibility to protect the school system from litigation."
Last month, Ridgeland High School in Rossville, Ga., came under attack from The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which accused football coach Mark Mariakis of leading the team in prayers and driving players to prepared meals at churches before games. Immediately, thousands threw their support to Mariakis in social media, emails, calls and in-person.
The school sent back a lengthy rebuttal, and a Facebook page has been created in support of the coach.
In the last year, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and Virginia have all passed measures authorizing student-initiated, student-led prayers. The states said those laws conform with a 1992 Supreme Court ruling, and a subsequent decision in another case by a federal appeals court in Texas, allowing some forms of voluntary, student-initiated prayer. But all those statutes are being contested in the courts.