Calvert Tackles Graduation Prayer Issue

The Calvert County Board of Education, caught up in a school prayer controversy that overshadowed commencement for one of its high schools last spring, has tried to resolve the issue over the summer by adopting a policy that regulates graduation exercises at all of its public schools.

The new policy continues to ban prayers as part of commencement exercises but allows any community group to organize an optional baccalaureate service for the graduating class as long as it is not led by a school administrator. Any such service would not be a formal part of graduation ceremonies.

The policy also prohibits a moment of silence or reflection unless it is led by a school principal in honor of a deceased classmate.

In May, emotions erupted in the county after the principal of Northern High School asked a senior girl to delete references to God in an invocation she planned to deliver at commencement; another student had objected to the religious content. When the girl chose instead to ask the audience to join her in 30 seconds of silent reflection, many began reciting the Lord's Prayer aloud.

In response, the student who had objected to a formal prayer walked out of the hall and was not allowed to return to the ceremony to collect his diploma.

The incident led to debate among parents, school board members, county commissioners and others in the community, which complicated the drafting of a new policy.

As originally proposed, the policy stated that the Board of Education "strongly endorses the concept of community-sponsored baccalaureate services" because it recognized "that cultural and religious beliefs play an important role in the lives of many graduates and their families." But after receiving legal advice, the board voted to exclude such endorsements.

"As public officials, we have to follow the law and look out for the best interest of the whole," said Robert L. Gray, president of the school board.

Meanwhile, several Christian ministers, elected officials and residents formed the Right to Pray Coalition, which is searching for a strategy to restore student-led prayer at public school events. The group has not yet decided on a plan of action for this school year, one member said last week.

-- Nancy Trejos

For Area Winemakers, Rain Brings Regret

A month ago, when daily temperatures hovered around 100 degrees and rain seemed like something that happened only in England, area wine growers were giddy over prospects for this year's grapes.

Grapes flourish in the hot, dry temperatures that marked the Washington region this summer. Their natural flavors are not diluted by water and they taste sweeter. Hot, dry conditions also prevent harmful fungi from forming.

But now, after a couple of late summer downpours and a weekend of rain courtesy of Hurricane Dennis, winemakers have sobered a bit.

"It's not going to be the vintage of the century anymore," said Bob Harper, owner of Naked Mountain Vineyards in Markham. "It'll probably be a little better than average."

Harper said that six inches of rain has fallen on his vineyard in the past 10 days and that the water is starting to dilute the grapes and cause mold.

"We're going to have to pick selectively so we don't include rotten grapes in the wine," he said.

Bert Basignani, owner of Basignani Winery in Baltimore County, said that the rain mostly skirted his vineyard but that enough fell to dampen this year's prospects.

"I don't think there's any question from the position we were going in this month, the edge is off the great year," Basignani said. "But I'm optimistic we'll still turn in some pretty good wines."

Despite the heavy showers from the remains of Dennis, growers say their crops won't be as bad as in 1996, when Hurricane Opal dumped about nine inches of rain in less than 24 hours.

"It's a bit of a disappointment," Harper said. "But we're going to have good wine; it won't be the disaster that '96 was."

-- Steven Ginsberg

Pr. George's Moves to Save Telecom Law

Prince George's County officials are appealing a federal court ruling that invalidated a county law forcing telecommunications firms to register with the county or pay rent to put fiber optics, cell phone towers and other equipment on public rights of way.

Attorneys for the county filed a brief last month in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond to appeal a recent decision by U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake, in which the Baltimore judge sided with Bell Atlantic-Maryland in a lawsuit over the county ordinance. The six-month-old law required telecommunications companies to turn over 3 percent of their gross revenue when their cables and wires crossed public property.

"We are absolutely going forward," said County Attorney Sean D. Wallace.

Montgomery County and the National Association of Counties have filed briefs in the appellate court on behalf of Prince George's.

AT&T and Sprint corporations also had sued the county over the ordinance--the first such law in the region to take a comprehensive approach to managing the rights of way.

Blake dismissed both of those cases.

-- Jackie Spinner