By Art Toalston
ASHEVILLE, N.C. (BP)--Gridlock struck Asheville, N.C., when thousands gathered for a "We Still Pray" rally -- and thousands more were stuck in traffic trying to reach the high school football stadium.
As many as 35,000 people, by one newspaper's estimate, either at the Aug. 17 rally or stuck on local highways registered their protest of a key U.S. Supreme Court ruling against school prayer in June.
One of the national goals of their fledgling "We Still Pray" movement is to encourage "spontaneous prayer" at high school football games -- by joining in the Lord's Prayer immediately after the National Anthem.
"This is not in defiance of the Supreme Court ruling," Wendell Runion, one of the interdenominational rally's organizers and owner of Christian radio station WKJV, told the Asheville Citizen-Times. "If the fans break out in a spontaneous prayer, there is no Supreme Court ruling against that."
The "We Still Pray" rally registered "an enormous turnout," a North Carolina State Highway Patrol officer in Asheville told Baptist Press.
"We had no idea that so many people would turn out," said Ralph Sexton, another rally organizer and pastor of an independent Baptist congregation in Asheville, Trinity Baptist.
The rally was scheduled with a couple weeks' notice and little publicity, the weekly Asheville Tribune reported, noting that every roadway leading to the Reynolds High School football stadium was blocked for hours -- and dotted by impromptu worship services and prayer vigils.
The Supreme Court decision at issue: a 6-3 ruling June 19 declaring unconstitutional a school district policy permitting public prayer before football games. The Galveston County, Texas, school policy permitted the high school student body to determine if it wanted a student to speak over the public address system before football games. If so, the students elected the speaker, who determined whether he would pray or give some other message.
Sexton was quoted by the Asheville Tribune as saying, "We have seen the steady erosion of [religious] rights in this country and it was time to let people know ... we still pray."
Speakers at the Asheville rally included Sexton and Runion, U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor, pastor James Walker of Biltmore Baptist Church, constitutional legal expert David Gibb and Donnie Parks, chief of police for nearby Hendersonville and a member of Asheville's Bent Creek Baptist Church.
Parks, voicing a prayer during the rally, said, "Father, we thank you for our community. Help us to say that we can no longer be silent, as some try to take away this right to pray. But Father, it's our silence, our sleepiness, that has led us into this situation. Help us to see and cause others to see, Father, that there can no longer be silence, and that we still pray."
The event was broadcast by two local Christian radio stations and also through streaming audio on the Internet.
Sexton told the Asheville Tribune that he hopes media attention generated by the rally's unexpectedly large turnout will help stir Congress to "protect our liberties from any further deterioration" and enact House Joint Resolution 66, a currently inactive piece of legislation to allow for prayer on public property. It can even become an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, he said, "if we stick together and stay after it."
The "We Still Pray" movement is circulating petitions in behalf of H.J.R. 66 and offering to help organize rallies in other cities, Sexton said.
The movement's Internet site is www.westillpray.net; its telephone number is (828) 252-6112.
The need for Christians to take a stand involves far more than a single Supreme Court decision, Sexton told the Asheville Tribune, citing, for example:
-- a student in nearby Henderson County who was told by a teacher that she would have to wear her "WE STILL PRAY" T-shirt inside-out for the remainder of her school day due to its religious overtones.
-- a case in Catawba County, N.C., in which the American Civil Liberties Union has threatened to sue if a cross in the 75-year-old county seal is not removed. The county commissioners recently voted unanimously to defy the threat.
-- a student in an adjacent state who was taken into a principal's office and told not to read the Bible on an hour-long ride on a public school bus.
-- the removal of the Ten Commandments from schools, courthouses and other public places in various states.
Baptist Press, Used with Permission.