In the spotlight's glare, a scene of fervor, tears
By ALEX LEARY and BARBARA BEHRENDT
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 1, 2001
CITRUS HILLS -- An assignment in Citrus County can be a drag for a hotshot television reporter from Tampa. But as Rob Spicker found out Tuesday, Citrus can be more exciting than it sounds.
"With all the talk about sex and drugs, it's got to be pretty good up here," Spicker said outside Forest Ridge Middle School, shortly after taping a news segment for WFTS-Ch. 28.
Weeping teenagers who proclaim that their faith has helped them resist temptation, Bible-waving adults, even a balding pagan in a robe emblazoned with a gold pentagram -- this is stuff that makes good television.
No doubt, the prayer debate provided Spicker with a vivid look into the very proud, very adamant, world of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians.
Several hundred of them, young and old alike, packed the Forest Ridge cafeteria for the School Board public hearing. Some clutched Bibles and others wore shirts that read "Jesus Saves" and "Real Men Love Jesus."
Just how one-sided the crowd was became clear when David Smith, youth pastor at Inverness First Methodist Church, asked Christians in the room to stand.
About 90 percent of the audience rose from the brown metal chairs. "You never realize the passion you have for something until it's threatened," Smith said.
"It's fantastic for the good guys," Gene Mason, 69, of Inverness said as he scanned the crowd during an early intermission of the nearly five-hour meeting. "Not that those that aren't with us are the bad guys. I don't know, maybe they are."
Before the meeting even began, dozens of people lined up outside the school entrance for a prayer meeting. They sang songs and prayed and held signs that read "I stand for Jesus Christ and prayers in our schools."
Students were encouraged to speak before the School Board, to express their dismay at any notion that prayer would be limited.
"When I think about the drugs, the violence, the guns and the sex in our world, why in the world would we want to take away the one thing that can take away the hurt?" asked Megan Pullen, a sophomore at Citrus High School.
Max Wilkins, pastor of Inverness First Methodist Church, suggested the real debate was about content, not equal access for clubs, such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
"Their ideas don't line up with your ideas," he said, referring to board member Carol Snyder. She interrupted him and asked "How do you know what my ideas are, you've never spoken to me."
Members of the audience gave the School Board a lesson in history and law, pointing out that the First Amendment protects free speech and that the nation's currency includes the inscription "In God We Trust."
As proof of this nation's religious roots, Jimmy Sheets presented the board with a painting of the First Continental Congress in 1774. Some of the men in the picture are praying.
"I will find a place for it," board Chairwoman Patience Nave said, drawing cheers from the audience.
Phil Horne of Floral City felt compelled to give a copy of the New Testament to Snyder, who touched off the debate three months ago when she suggested that Christian prayers that began board meetings excluded some faiths.
Horne stepped onto the stage in the cafeteria and handed Snyder the small black book, which he received many years ago from his grandfather. She took it but not before telling him that she has several Bibles at home and one in her purse.
For as unwavering as it was, the audience was mostly tolerant of opposing viewpoints. At least five Citrus County Sheriff's deputies were on hand in case anyone got out of hand, but the scene remained calm.
"It seems to me all Mrs. Snyder wants is public schools to mean exactly that, public schools. Well so do I," said Josefa Coury of Inverness.
Janet Masaoy of Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Lecanto urged the board to replace its opening prayer with a moment of silence.
"How can anyone feel it is Christian to impose a way of praying, how can that be loving and respectful?"
At times, the crowd did not hide its disapproval, especially for Charles Schrader, a community activist and pagan who has interrupted Christian opening prayers at board meetings by chanting his own invocation to his Wiccan goddess.
"I've had to deal with religious, intolerant bigots for most of my life," Schrader said, "and it always comes down to whose God and whose prayer in our multicultured, diverse, religious free nation it will be."
When he finished speaking someone shouted, "Where do you live?" Another person said, "God loves you." At that, Schrader faced the audience and formed a Wiccan sign with his fingers.
Schrader did not stick around long after speaking. He left the building followed by two sheriff's deputies, who were there to protect him from any hecklers. Schrader, however, seemed annoyed with the escort.
"Bye boys," he told the officers. "Go back to fighting crime now, real crime."
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