At precisely 7:45 a.m. Principal Robert Cespiva eyed the wall clock at E.I. Barron Elementary School and made the day's first official announcement over the intercom: "Will everyone please stand while Matt Bartlett leads us in prayer."
A fifth-grader stepped to the microphone, a pint-sized point man in Rapides Parish's (county) defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court. "Dear Heavenly Father," said Matt, 11, as students bowed their heads, "we are thankful for today. We ask that You let us live without committing any sins. In Your name we pray. Amen."
And with that, he was off to class, having sent a message from this Bible Belt of bayou rebels all the way to Washington, D.C., via the Lord.
Louisiana's law allowing voluntary prayer sessions in public schools was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court last month, but many schools are praying away. The people of Rapides Parish say God and President Reagan are on their side.
As for the Supreme Court, "To heck with them," said Ina LaBorde, who defied a federal busing order last year to send her daughter, Michele, to all-white Buckeye High School. "I'm not going to let anyone tell me when my child can pray. If we're breaking the law, so be it."
All across America, people like Ina LaBorde are interpreting Reagan's election and his vow to get government off the backs of the people as a license to do their will, even if it goes against the law of the land.
"I feel like Reagan is cheering us on from the sidelines," said school board member Arthur Martin, 63, a local real estate man whose white Cadillac sports a "My Nationality, American" bumper sticker. "He keeps making references to God on the TV. In fact, he's the most outspoken president, in reference to God, we've ever had. I figure if he had to take a stand, he'd come out for prayer in public schools.
"Just because the Supreme Court says it doesn't mean it's the law," he said. "The people are the law of the land. Our great nation was founded by a bunch of renegades who got tired of taxation without representation and rebelled against the British. This is our Boston Tea Party."
The Supreme Court ruled this tea party unconstitutional when it upheld a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that Louisiana's voluntary school prayer law violated the First Amendment's provision for separation of church and state. But that hasn't stopped principals like Robert Cespiva from holding daily prayer, or students like Matt Bartlett from vying for the honor of saying it.
Cespiva, jovial, gray-haired, and an educator for 39 years, said his 525 students will keep right on praying until the Rapides Parish School Board orders him to stop. And the board has no intention of doing that.
"We're going to keep doing things the way we've always done them until our school prayer policy is challenged," said board President Terry Farrar. "We're closer than Washington to what the people in this community want. The courts have gone too far. They've reached the point where they're trying to regulate everything about our lives."
The Supreme Court thought it settled the matter 20 years ago, in its 1963 ruling against organized prayer in public schools. In 1980, Louisiana went around the ruling, or thought it did, by making the prayer voluntary.
Each teacher could invite students to offer a prayer before classes began. If a student didn't want to participate he had the option to sit quietly or leave the room. If no student volunteered, the teacher could pray.
Rapides Parish and nearby Jefferson Parish were among several school boards that quickly adopted a voluntary prayer plan.
But Louisiana's American Civil Liberties Union challenged Jefferson Parish's one-minute school prayer sessions, and last August the Circuit Court struck down the state law and the Jefferson Parish guidelines.
The appellate court said the "unmistakable message of the Supreme Court's teachings is that the state cannot employ a religious means to serve otherwise legitimate secular interests."
In Rapides Parish, heavily Baptist, anti-busing, anti-abortion and pro-Reagan, school prayer is just the latest chapter in a history of resistance.
A local judge who countermanded a direct federal court busing order, finally backing down under threat of contempt charges, was last year's folk hero.
For the past decade the school board has dragged its feet over integration, spending well over $1 million in legal fees to fight forced busing. The board is still in court protesting a federal desegregation plan.
"Rapides Parish is the Old South," said school board member Jo Ann Kellogg. "It still has southern traditions and values that make it peculiar and attractive. Change is very suspect. Everyone says, 'Yes, ma'am' and 'No ma'am.' Men stand up when a lady walks in the room. They take her coat and open the car door. It's nice. People believe in common courtesy."
School board member Martin, the author of the parish's school prayer plan, said, "I'd rather be right with God than the Supreme Court." His plan calls for schools to allow "students wishing to enter into communication with any Supreme Being" to set aside time at the beginning of each day.
At Barron school a student is picked each morning to deliver a prayer. Students have used the occasion to bless parents, teachers, Principal Cespiva, favorite bird dogs, even the people of Poland.
"I like it," said Holly Colle, 11. "It helps us on our tests."
At lunch time teachers select a student to say grace. "We really need it at lunch," the principal grinned, "especially when they serve canned beef."
Martin said he tried to word the guidelines so it would be impossible for any court to throw it out on constitutional grounds. The school board is holding its breath.
Board member Douglas Jenkins said he backed it because voting against it would have been tantamount to "voting against baseball, America, motherhood and Chevrolets."
The only vocal dissident was a Lutheran minister, the Rev. Tom Speidel.
"Prayer is very central to my life," he told the school board. "We are very much Bible-oriented. But my child does not go to school to pray. She goes to learn . . . . A public school is set up strictly to educate its students how to survive in this world. It has no responsibility to care for the soul."
At Bolton High School, Principal Jesse Doyle has set aside 30 seconds at the beginning of each day for "silent meditation," and most students don't seem to mind.
"It gives you a chance to get your thoughts together," said senior Terri Toomey, 17. "You don't have to pray. If you're an atheist, you can sit and think."
But a handful of students resent the sessions. The dissenters point out that the meditation period ends with, "Amen," giving it a religous flavor.
"It's called 'silent meditation,' but that's just a cover-up for prayer in a public school," said school newspaper co-editor Laura Struck, 18. "If you want to 'meditate' or be quiet, you can always go to the library. If you want to pray, go to church or a parochial school. But leave God at home."
Several students said they are reluctant to make a fuss because of peer pressure. And some say they are perplexed by educators who teach respect for the law then violate it.
"If it's against the law, why do it?" wondered senior Brent Caplan, 18, one of a handful of Jewish students. "I'm disgusted. If they get away with usurping the Constitution, what's stopping them from breaking another law?"
But Theta Pate, a fifth-grade teacher at Barron, defended the prayer:
"We are a nation governed by rules and laws. If you break them, you pay the penalty. The Supreme Court says I'm breaking the rules, but I'm working for the good of the majority. I'm willing to pay the penalty. We're not violating anybody's right here. What are we going to do next? Take God's name off our coins?"
Mark Caplan, 14, said he fears the meditation sessions could lead to "Christian prayers" and, ultimately, discrimination against "Jews, Moslems, atheists and deists."
He stood his ground in an impromptu library debate against a dozen fellow students, arguing that school prayer could lead fundamentalist Christians with Reagan's ear to try to enforce "standards for a 'Christian America.' Prayer should be a private matter."
Principal Doyle shrugged off the handful of protesters. He said he believes that voluntary prayer is what the taxpayers want, and the taxpayers are footing the bill, not the Supreme Court.
Besides, he said, "There's a time when you've got to take a stand for values that got this country somewhere. I'd much rather do battle with the Lord on my side than against me."
As for those students who don't like it, he said, "You just got to suffer through some things in life."
More than half the 47 public schools in the parish practice some kind of voluntary prayer program, according to a local newspaper survey. But Martha Keegel, executive director of the New Orleans ACLU, warned that ignoring a clear signal from the Supreme Court could result in costly lawsuits that Rapides Parish would certainly lose.
"The Supreme Court has ruled clearly that prayers can't be offered in public schools in any kind of official way," she said. "If a child chooses to bow his or her head on their own, fine. But teachers can't in any way encourage the saying of prayers."