DOUGLASVILLE, Ga. — For as long as most residents of this northwest Georgia community of 7,461 can recall, the home football games at Douglas County High School have been opened with a prayer.
It is a custom as steeped in tradition here--and elsewhere in the South--as sopping biscuits in gravy or eating black-eyed peas on New Year's Day. At Douglas County High, the prayer is said just before the playing of the "Star-Spangled Banner" and the opening kickoff.
A clergyman selected by the county ministerial association steps into the press box at Tiger Field and, over the public address system, as the spectators in the blue-and-white bleachers bow their heads, invokes the blessing of the deity on the contest.
Now, however, that time-honored ritual is under serious assault. It will be tested in a federal court trial opening today.
Douglas Jager, an 18-year-old senior science major at the sprawling red-brick high school, has filed a lawsuit, along with his father, William, a retired Army sergeant, contending that pregame prayers should be banned because they violate the separation between church and state mandated by the U.S. Constitution.
"The prayers really irritate me," said the younger Jager, who attends the games as saxophonist in the school's marching band. "I'm basically an agnostic, a humanist. I've got nothing against people who want to pray at the games. I just think they should do it on their own, without all that amperage on the PA system."
The case, in federal district court in Atlanta, 25 miles due east, is the latest legal skirmish in a battle below the Mason-Dixon Line over what role prayer should play in public school life. The outcome is expected to have repercussions for high schools and colleges not only in Georgia but throughout the Deep South.
If Jager is successful, said Herman Scott, executive director of the Alabama High School Assn., then "some nut will certainly try to do the same thing in Alabama to seek recognition and notoriety. Prayer is good for the sport and good for the image."
Jager has already won one important round in the suit.
Restraining Order Issued
In late September, with three games remaining in the Tigers' 10-game football schedule, U.S. District Judge G. Ernest Tidwell granted Jager's request for a temporary restraining order barring the school-sponsored prayers until full arguments could be heard and a decision rendered.
That set off a firestorm of reaction in Douglasville, a town dominated by conservative Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians.
Jager has been harassed at school and besieged by threatening phone calls at home. Last Sunday, he says, the left rear tires of both his 1971 sedan and his mother's new car were slashed as the automobiles sat in the family garage. One woman, who called her minister to complain about Jager's lawsuit, was reported to have said: "I believe in prayer, but I think somebody ought to beat him up."
At the first home football game after the judge's decision, many in the crowd wore T-shirts and carried banners with slogans such as "Pray today" and "I feel a need for prayer." One man broke into a recital of "The Lord's Prayer" and was joined by part of the crowd of 3,000.
David Hill, principal of Douglas County High, which has a student enrollment of 1,400, said that the tradition of praying before home football games goes back at least to the 1920s.
"We don't think that this is an issue that involves religion and government," he said. "People go to the football games voluntarily, and no particular religion or religious viewpoint is being pushed in the prayers."
He said also that, up to the time of the temporary ban on the prayers, the Tigers had a 7-0 record, but, afterward, the team lost the remaining three games. But he hastened to add: "I certainly wouldn't want to say there was any connection."
Jager, meanwhile, appears to be taking the controversy stoically. His closest friends are behind him, he says, as are his parents and his 14-year-old brother, who attends one of the other two county high schools.
'A Lot of Flak'
"I knew I was going to get a lot of flak over this," said Jager, who was born in Denver and moved to Douglasville with his family in 1976. "I've been living with these people for the last 10 years."
Bryan Barnett, one of Jager's friends, says Jager has shown tremendous courage. "I have the same views as him, but I don't think I would have the guts to go through what he has," he told a reporter after Judge Tidwell imposed the temporary restraining order.
The depth of passion aroused by Jager's case is not unusual, given the special place of prayer and football in Southern life.
Even the Pigs Pray
"Southerners pray before just about everything. It's a social ritual," said William Ferris, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. "There's a farmer in Mississippi who has even taught his pigs to pray before they slop at the trough."