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Prayer debate lifts many voices

At times resembling a tent revival more than a public hearing, the Citrus School Board finds little peace on divisive issue.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT and ALEX LEARY

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2001


CITRUS HILLS -- One by one, children and adults filed up to the microphone, testifying about the impact of Christ in their lives.

For hours the scene continued, interrupted occasionally by thundering applause, or a ripple of "Amens" that stirred the crowd.

But this was no church service, or even a tent revival.

It was an elementary school cafeteria where the Citrus County School Board, wracked with controversy in recent months, was hearing the public's opinion on two issues: opening board meetings with a prayer and allowing a Christian youth group to meet at a middle school during school hours.

The hearing, at which no decisions were made, was designed to allow Citrus residents to hold forth.

The board got its wish.

"Our society has done permanent damage to our youth by eliminating (prayer) from our schools," Lecanto High School sophomore Courtney Stewart told the board, convened at Forest Ridge Elementary School.

Added Kristen Pepe, vice president of the Inverness Middle School Fellowship of Christian Athletes: "Prayers should not be taken out of School Board meetings and out of our schools."

In tears, Citrus High School student Rena Murray begged the board to continue to allow religious expression in the schools. Describing an atmosphere where Christian children are persecuted in the schools, she said she wanted to take a stand.

"Jesus Christ is worth standing for and there might be nothing else that is," Murray said.

Not everyone agreed with the direction of the lengthy session.

Patricia Cloward stepped to the front three hours into the session and asked what had happened with the meeting. She said she thought the meeting was not to be about religion but specific legal issues.

"Why are we having a revival meeting here . . .?" Cloward asked. She said the job of the public school board was to run the public schools.

Two issues were on the agenda. One was the question of how to open future meetings. The other was whether the board should tighten the rules about when clubs could meet at school.

Both issues were raised by board member Carol Snyder.

When she first took office in November, Snyder asked the board to consider ending the practice of opening nearly every meeting with an overtly Christian prayer. Giving such preference to one religious viewpoint is improper in a diverse public school district and community, Snyder has argued.

The question about club meetings was raised after a pre-Christmas party at Inverness Middle School, sponsored by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

While those two issues were the board's main discussion topics Tuesday, few speakers directly addressed those concerns.

Instead, the board heard speaker after speaker talk about the value of the fellowship and the saving power of Christ. One speaker brought petitions signed by 9,000 people expressing a vote of no-confidence in Snyder.

Joseph Deddo, who described himself as a working man, criticized Snyder for not announcing her intent to remove religion from the schools before the election.

Another blasted School Board Chairwoman Patience Nave for allowing the debate to go on.

"You've taken this School Board down a very slippery slope here," said Jim Bitter of the Citrus County Council. "This has got to end so you can get back to the education of our children."

An hour before the session, more than 100 people, many of them members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, gathered for a prayer session.

Though the board had no plans to remove FCA, many of the demonstrators characterized the discussion as an assault on their faith.

"Nobody's doing anything illegal," said Gene Himmel, 14, president of the FCA chapter at Inverness Middle School. "It shouldn't even be a controversy."

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