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Let 'em pray: debate among public and private schools not centered on religion, just football.

It's not the prayers. It's the points. Here in the heart of the Bible Belt, the public vs. private school debate seems to have less to do with the Christian affiliation of the private institutions and more about their apparent ability to steamroll public school opponents on the football field.

Organized, pregame prayers cause a lot less consternation than, say, defending Shiloh Christian's spread offense. And if there are any problems surrounding prayer on the field, they have proven much easier to solve than leveling the same playing field.

Multipliers, transfer rules and classification changes have been put in play in recent years in an effort to minimize the perceived advantage that private schools, who can offer athletes financial aid, have over their public brethren. But no one is really complaining about the private schools' edge when it comes to expressions of faith.

"I don't think it's really an issue with any of them," Shiloh Christian coach and athletic director Josh Floyd said. "I wouldn't say anybody, anywhere has ever brought it up with me."

Private, parochial schools like Shiloh, which is affiliated with the First Baptist Church in Springdale, aren't bound by the same laws governing schools that accept federal or state funding, so they don't face restrictions on school-organized, pregame prayer.

That means a local minister or student leader can conduct an organized prayer over the stadium public address system at a private school home game.

Yet the law doesn't ban prayer at public school games.

"If it's student led, I think the law says, if it's student led, prayer is fine," Arkansas Activities Association executive director

Lance Taylor said. "As king as it's not over the PA system."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The AAA has more than 300 high schools in its membership and 21 are private schools. Naturally, a private, church-affiliated school will play more public than private school opponents in a given season and will have to travel to schools where organized, pregame prayers are not allowed.

Floyd said his team solves that by simply having a team prayer in the locker room.

"I've seen many public schools do the same thing," Floyd said.

Taylor said prayer has never become such an issue that the AAA has had to weigh in with a ruling or guideline.

"No, not at all. That's up to each individual school district," Taylor said.

Not that public-private school issues haven't kept the AAA's hands full.

After a season in which Shiloh Christian won its fifth state title in a decade, taking the 4A championship and beating public school Berryville 65-0 in a regular-season game, the public vs. private school uproar got a little louder.

Berryville put forth a proposal requiring schools that offer need-based financial aid to play each other for state championships while the AAA's board of directors countered with a proposal to tighten transfer rules. Taylor has said publicly he felt high-profile

athletes transferring at will in grades 8-10 was causing more problems than the financial aid offered by schools like Shiloh. Floyd said he agrees in principle with rules governing transfers, but once a rule is in place he would like to see it given a chance to work.

Whatever the issues pulling public and private schools apart, it is the prayers, however briefly, that bring them together. On most Friday nights, even during the heat of the postseason, players and coaches from opposing teams continue to huddle for a voluntary word of thanks.

"I've been to a lot of football finals and basketball finals and I've seen them all huddle tap," Taylor said.
PRIVATE, FAITH-BASED FOOTBALL PLAYING SCHOOLS

SCHOOL CLASS LOCATION

ARKANSAS BAPTIST 3A Little Rock
CATHOLIC HIGH FOR BOYS 7A Little Rock
CENTRAL ARKANSAS CHRISTIAN 5A North Little Rock
CONWAY CHRISTIAN 2A Conway
EPISCOPAL COLLEGIATE SCHOOL 3A Little Rock
NARDING ACADEMY 3A Searcy
LITTLE ROCK CHRISTIAN ACADEMY 5A Little Rock
LUTHERAN HIGH SCHOOL 2A Little Rock
PULASKI ACADEMY 5A Little Rock
SHILOH CHRISTIAN 4A Springdale
SUBIACO ACADEMY 4A Subiaco
UNION CHRISTIAN ACADEMY 2A Fort Smith
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Title Annotation:HIGH SCHOOL: Faith and Football
Author:Traub, Todd
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jul 13, 2009
Words:668
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