A spat over whether prayers should be uttered during Veterans Day commemorations at public schools has prompted the Bloomington School District to drop the American Legion as a partner for today's flag-raising ceremonies.

Teams from the Minnesota Army National Guard and not the American Legion and the VFW will present arms, help raise flags and lead students in the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem.

"My guys say if they can't do the ceremony they've done for 40 years, they won't do it," said Terry Selle, commander of American Legion Post 550. The Legion also will hold back scholarships estimated at $25,000 to $30,000.

Poplar Bridge Elementary School Principal Gail Swor, who has led the school for 19 years, was one of those who called district officials concerned that prayers were part of last year's program.

As always, she said, students walked to the outdoor flagpole. Swor explained the significance of Veterans Day before turning the event over to the American Legion team, which included Selle.

"Last year was the first year that as part of the ceremony one of the gentlemen from the American Legion had all of us bow our heads in prayer," she said. "Frankly, it caught me off guard because they had never done that before. We do not do that in public school."

Swor said she told one of the veterans afterward that "he really could not do that ... in a public school setting. He was not happy, but he did not comment."

She said she is "absolutely" sure that prayers had not been said at previous ceremonies.

But Selle said he thinks prayers have been used in Veterans Day ceremonies at public schools.

School and American Legion officials met several times over the last year to try to negotiate a compromise.

"We are not trying to push anything on kids or convert them, but we are a Christian-based country and a military based on Christian-based principles," said Selle, who was an Army medic in Vietnam. "My opinion is that this is another example of America going downhill."

The VFW, which also has teams that participated in Veterans Day commemorations at Bloomington public schools, withdrew its honor guards in support of the Legion, said Doug Doerfler, commander of Everett McClay VFW Post 1296.

Al Davis, commander of the Minnesota American Legion, said he was not familiar with the details of the Bloomington dispute but that prayers "are always part of our rituals ... I think it's depriving the children of quite a program when they can't see veterans there."

Rich Kaufman, communications director for Bloomington Public Schools, said the district will hold commemorations at all 15 district schools.

"It is unfortunate that we could not find a resolution, because we had a great working relationship. But we have to respect the rights of every student in school and what the Supreme Court has said about separation of church and state," Kaufman said.

Three teams from the National Guard will present arms and help raise the flag at Bloomington schools.

Swor said she will explain the significance of the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 to Poplar Bridge students -- the moment when the Armistice ending World War I was signed. As the flag is raised, students will say the Pledge of Allegiance and a recording of taps will play.

"It's very moving," Swor said. "We do think it is very, very important to talk to students about how many people have served in the Armed Forces and that we live in a free country."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380