DeMent Strikes down Prayer,
Bible Reading in Alabama Schools
by Conrad Goeringer
October 31, 1997
Score another victory for state-church separation, thanks to a federal judge's ruling yesterday which barred Alabama public schools from allowing prayer or organized Bible reading on school property.
Judge Ira DeMent extended his previous orders striking down the state's 1993 school prayer law, and rejected arguments by Alabama Governor Fob James which claimed that individual states can establish their own laws on religious conduct free of interference from federal courts or even guidelines found in the U.S. Constitution. DeMent upheld a considerable body of legal decisions in his ruling, such as Murray v. Curlett (which struck prayer and Bible recitation in public schools) and Engel v. Vitale (which banned state-composed prayer in public school classrooms). An attorney for the Alabama school boards told reporters that the ruling provides clear and concise guidelines which administrators and other public officials may follow in an area which had been "confusingly complex."
Part of DeMent's ruling focused on the action of Madison County, Alabama officials who had permitted -- and some say even encouraged -- so-called "voluntary, student-led" prayer at graduation ceremonies. That policy ended last May, however, when county schools were told to end the prayer because of DeMent's earlier ruling against the 1993 law. But despite the order from both DeMent and county school officials, some students at Sparkman High School initiated a graduation prayer anyway.
Separation, Free Speech Protected and Balanced
Judge DeMent's ruling strikes a delicate balance between freedom of expression and the need to preserve state-church separation in the schools. One area clearly protected is voluntary student gatherings, such as the recent "See You At The Pole" events held every year by religious groups. Guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Education in 1995 affirmed the legality of that activity, so long as it remains voluntary and does not take place as part of official school business. The legality of "See You At The Pole" has been affirmed by a spectrum of groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Christian Legal Society.
American Atheists, while supporting the right of students to participate in the "See You At The Pole" rallies, has cautioned school officials and teachers from endorsing the activity, and creating the appearance that participation is required or will "win points" for students. AA has also expressed concern that enthused "prayer warriors" organizing the Pole events must not be permitted to coerce or bully others into joining; and the organization has noted that atheists and others must have the right to peacefully observe or criticize the event, and organize their own activities on the campus as well.
Judge DeMent did affirm the constitutionality of using religious texts in an academic context, and the display of religious symbols or clothing which had religious messages. And while it bans orchestrated prayer an commencement gatherings, his order allows students to individually "give thanks" to the deity of their choice.
The ruling prohibits any devotional messages or scripture readings over school public address systems; it does permit "non-curricular religious clubs," however, to announce their meetings or related activities.
In the Midst of the "Alabama Prayer Wars"
DeMent's ruling comes at a time when prayer and religious display is a hot issue throughout Alabama. Etowah County Judge Roy Moore has attracted national attention for defiance of court orders telling him to "cease and desist" from opening judicial proceedings with a Baptist invocation, and to remove a hand-carved plaque of the Ten Commandments from the wall of his courtroom. Alabama Governor Fob James has expressed belligerent support for Moore and public religiosity, threatening to call out the national guard, state police, and the University of Alabama football team, if necessary, to resist any federal order banning prayer and Ten Commandments display in public buildings.
Yesterday's order is clear. Donald Sweeney, attorney for the Alabama school boards, told the Huntsville (Alabama) Times that before the latest ruling, "some schools were following the law in good faith; others were not." He added, No longer will well-intending persons, political or otherwise, be able to argue to our principals or educators that 'the law is not clear,' or 'the law doesn't apply in your city or county so do what you want and what we want you to do. You won't get in trouble...'"
The Huntsville Times noted that, "DeMent's ruling raised the threat of contempt proceedings against any state or public school officials who violates his order..."
Details of Judge
The Birmingham News
October 31, 1997
U.S. Judge's 'Road Map'
Targets '93 Alabama Law
by Stan Bailey, David White, and Frank Sikora
The Birmingham News
October 31, 1997
Montgomery -- A federal judge issued a far-reaching injunction Thursday against school-sponsored religious activities in Alabama public schools that had been carried out under a 1993 state law that he had ruled unconstitutional in March.
One school official called the ruling by U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent a "road map" for Alabama public schools to follow.
DeMent issued the injunction against the governor, the attorney general and the state Board of Education and imposed highly detailed directives on DeKalb County school officials. They had cited the 1993 law as authority for a variety of religious activities in DeKalb schools.
DeMent's ruling came in a suit by Michael Chandler, a DeKalb County teacher and assistant principal at Valley Head High School, who sought to ban religious activities in DeKalb schools ranging from organized prayers in classrooms and at sporting events to distribution of Gideon Bibles to students.
Chandler, 47, said he is pleased with DeMent's ruling. "I hope we can get it behind us and get on with teaching the kids like we're supposed to," he said. While other school systems are not named in DeMent's injunction, lawyers in the case said it sets forth activities that are allowed and prohibited by the U.S. Constitution under current federal appeals court rulings, which apply nationwide.
"All the judge has done is set down a solid 35 years of precedent," said Pam Sumners, a Birmingham based attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, who represents Chandler.
Chandler said he filed the suit because he saw students shut out of classrooms where Bible study was going on. "They were made to sit out in the hall, and if they weren't put out, they were made to stay in and listen," he said.
Chandler, who has taught school for 25 years in DeKalb, said he was raised a Baptist but now only occasionally attends services at a Unitarian church. He said DeKalb officials continued with activities they knew were illegal and said they didn't care what the federal court said.
DeKalb County Superintendent Richard Land said DeMent's ruling "outlined a very specific road map" for state and school officials to follow. "It is a road map for not just the DeKalb County school system but for every county and city school system in the state of Alabama," he said.
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which filed the suit on behalf of Chandler, hailed DeMent's injunction as "a timely reminder that America's public schools are for education, not indoctrination."
But Dean Young, founder and executive director of The Christian Family Association, condemned DeMent's ruling as a setback for religious liberty.
"It is a sad day in this state and nation when a single judge can force his opinion on the people of Alabama when the vast majority of the citizens of this state disagree with that opinion," he said. "If one federal judge can dictate to the people of this state how they cannot perform religious activities, we are not very far from the time when they will remove all religious rights of the people."
Governor Fob James wrote a 34-page letter to DeMent in June urging the judge to defy current U.S. Supreme Court rulings and to hold that the Bill of Rights does not apply to state governments.
DeMent this week ordered James, Attorney General Bill Pryor and the state Board of Education not to enforce a 1993 state law that permitted "non-sectarian, non-proselytizing prayers" -- prayers that are general in nature, not worded to fit only the beliefs of a particular sect or group and do not seek to impose those beliefs on others.
Spokespersons for James and Pryor said Thursday they are studying DeMent's ruling and had no immediate comment.
DeMent in March ruled the 1993 law unconstitutional because it permits state-sponsored prayer that is prohibited by the Constitution and because it violates the rights of students to pray and engage in other activities that are protected.
Pryor said in March that he saw no need to appeal DeMent's ruling because it was correct, and in papers filed in DeMent's court later said James' 34-page letter didn't represent the state's official view.
State Rep. Bill Fuller (D-LaFayette), who sponsored the 1993 law, said he was disappointed by DeMent's order and also disappointed that he didn't write the law well enough or clear enough to survive a court challenge.
If he's re-elected next year, Fuller said, he will try again in 1999 to pass into law "some appropriate school prayer encouragement. I'm going to do some serious study and some serious prayer about it between now and my next term."
Several legal scholars said DeMent's order seems to follow current U.S. Supreme Court rulings, which ban state-sponsored prayers but protect a person's right to private speech or prayer.
"What the court is simply saying is, the state has no place in telling people what they must believe or recite in terms of religious oaths or prayers," said Bryan Fair, a University of Alabama law professor.
Chriss Doss, executive director of the Center for the Study of Law and the Church at Samford University's Cumberland Law School, said DeMent's order sounded balanced and consistent.
Doss, a lawyer, Southern Baptist pastor and former Jefferson County commissioner, said DeMent is "right on target" with prior U.S. Supreme Court rulings and appears to be trying to outline practical guidelines on what is allowed and what is not.
Thomas C. Berg, who teaches church-state law at Cumberland, said DeMent may have gone "a little far" in some places but appears to have limited prohibitions to "government-sponsored religion and tried not to interfere with voluntary, individual private speech and prayer."
But Berg said DeMent's ban on a student in a valedictory address from calling for audience participation in prayer or thanks to God may infringe on that student's free speech rights. "I think that's a questionable part of the ruling," Berg said.
Schools React To Judge's
by Elizabeth Wine
October 31, 1997
In DeKalb County schools, Bibles no longer may be distributed to students, and in Pike County schools administrators will not be able to proselytize to Jewish children.
But it's less clear what impact a federal court ruling on prayer in schools will have on schools in the Birmingham area, which had not been the subject of complaints about such activities.
Several Birmingham area school superintendents said they don't know whether any current activities -- such as early morning schoolyard worship services -- will be in U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent's ruling on prayer in schools.
The ruling reaffirms the U.S. Supreme Court's earlier rulings banning prayer and religious activity conducted during instructional time.
The new ruling prohibits "school organized or officially sanctioned religious activity" in DeKalb County classrooms, including "vocal prayer, Bible and religious devotional or scriptural readings, distribution of religious materials, texts or announcements, and discussions of a devotional/inspirational nature, regardless of whether the activity is initiated, led by or engaged in by students."
Jefferson County Superindendent Bruce Wright said he had not seen the ruling Thursday. He expressed hope that the ruling will clarify which religious activities are and are not allowed on campus.
But he also expressed concerns about whether the ruling clearly stakes out the legality of early-morning religious gatherings on school property.
"There's a thing right now, `Rally 'Round the Flagpole.' Is that to be considered an officially sanctioned activity?" Wright said. "We will defer to the attorneys."
The ruling states that it does not affect the right of secondary students to engage in religious activity during noninstructional time. Homewood Schools Superintendent Byron Nelson said he read the ruling and determined it would not change any practices at his schools.
Homewood's middle and high schools have chapters of the Christian student group First Priority, who meet before class on school property. Nelson said the ruling supports their right to meet.
"That's no surprise," he said. "I don't see that it particularly changes anything we're doing in Homewood. It does not affect the right of secondary students to quietly engage in religious activity."
But Shelby County Superintendent Bill Sparks had some concerns about the ruling's allowance of students "quietly engaging" in religious activity. He questioned whether a student could say grace in the school cafeteria under the new ruling.
DeMent's ruling states students may "quietly engage in religious activity during noninstructional times, so long as it does not unduly call attention thereto and so long as it does not interfere with the rights of other students to freely pass thereby or to avoid its imposition upon themselves."
Sparks said he will abide by the ruling but disagrees personally.
"I think that he's wrong. I think that one of the things that is wrong with the country today is we've taken God out of the schools. It just saddens me."
He added that he will consult with the board attorney before proceeding, but as far as he knows, the Shelby County schools have been abiding by the law.
Superintendents Jack Farr of Hoover and Carlton Smith of Vestavia Hills had not read the ruling, but both said they thought their systems were in compliance with the law.
The ruling was handed down in response to a case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State on behalf of a DeKalb County school system assistant principal who was concerned about religious activities in the system.
Alleged violations of the law in DeKalb included the distribution of Bibles in school and the use of organized prayer during school activities.
An unrelated lawsuit against the Pike County school system claims Jewish students were forced to participate in Christian activities and barred from practicing their faith. That suit was not involved in this ruling.
Wednesday's ruling reaffirms DeMent's previous rulings, rejecting Governor Fob James' declaration that states can ignore federal law when deciding religious conduct in public places.
Steven Green, legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the decision addresses problems that exist in many public schools in the South.
"There's been a winking at Supreme Court decisions prohibiting organized prayer in school events," Green said.
In Alabama, where James vowed to use National Guard troops to protect a courtroom display of the Ten Commandments, such defiance is not surprising, he said.
Dean Young, founder and Executive Director of the Christian Family Association and a spokesman for Gadsden Judge Roy Moore, said Wednesday's ruling is unconstitutional.
"If one federal judge can dictate to the people of this state how they cannot perform religious activities, we are not very far from the time when they will remove all religious rights of the people," Young said in a prepared statement.
Lemarse Washington, Executive Director of the National Conference for Christians and Jews, was more sanguine.
"The judge's ruling is in keeping with the separation of church and state, and in doing so it does not allow the public advocacy of one religion or deity over another, but it does allow individual expression of individual beliefs," he said.
Ruling Bedevils Alabama
by David Brewer
The Huntsville Times
October 31, 1997
Valley Head, Alabama -- For most of the customers who eat lunch daily at Tiger's Inn Family Restaurant on Commerce Street, a federal judge's ruling Thursday on school prayer goes against everything they grew up believing.
Ruth Battles, a cook at the restaurant her sister and brother-in-law opened 38 years ago, said many of Valley Head's 500 residents consider Michael Chandleran outsider who came here with the main goal of cutting out prayer in DeKalb County classrooms.
"The ol' Devil works that way," she said as she dropped a basket of flour-covered chicken into boiling grease. I think it's awful we don't have freedom to worship."
Chandler, assistant principal at Valley Head School, asked a federal court to force the DeKalb County school system to prevent teachers and students from praying publicly on school property. Thursday, U.S. District Juge Ira DeMent issued his most recent ruling restricting officially encouraged practices like prayer and Bible readings in Alabama's public classrooms.
Chandler said that despite a ruling by DeMent last spring that struck down Alabama's 1993 school prayer law, there were prayers at some spring commencements and over loudspeakers at some football games this fall.
"I hope he's got their attention now," said Chandler. Over the years, he said, there was "a real belligerent attitude" against obeying federal court orders against coercive religion in public schools.
"I thought it was a real bad example for the students," said Chandler.
But to Tiger's Inn customer Marshall Orr and his son, Tommy, the federal court is punishing good, God-fearing people trying to raise their children to become productive and law-abiding citizens.
"They are not wanting to give them the knowledge of what's right and wrong," Orr said. "When you start off your day with a prayer, you start off with the knowledge of the Lord in your mind."
Orr and his son operate a small landscaping business. They often take their lunch break at Tiger's Restaurant, named after Valley Head School's mascot.
Tommy Orr said he's concerned about the consequences of telling a school it cannot have its teachers and students praying publicly.
"To me, it's discrimination" against those people who want to pray, he said.
We're not giving the kids a chance to vote on this," the elder Orr said. The court has taken that chance away."
Chandler, a native and resident of Fyffe, has worked for 25 years in the DeKalb County School System. He has served the last 12 years at Valley Head School, which was built in 1924 and has 465 students in grades K-12.
Chandler, 47, grew up as a Baptist, but said he occasionally attends a Unitarian church.
He said he began complaining to the school system about prayer and Bible studies being conducted in the classroom because he felt it offended non-Christian students.
Chandler said he first complained shortly after arriving at the school when two grade school students of the Hindu religion became upset about Christian prayers and Bible readings in the classroom.
"I felt it was my job to complain for them," he said. These students don't want something taught to them that's contrary to what they learn at home."
Rev. Jimmy Graves, another regular at Tiger's, quoted a passage from the Book of Proverbs: "Bring up a child in the way he should go."
Pastor of the Union Hill Baptist Church in Fort Payne, Graves said he and other ministers who are members of the North Alabama Ministerial Association have been discussing what they will do in response to the court ruling but don't have any plan yet.
"A lot of people believe this is the beginning of the end," Graves said.
Joy Hester, owner of Tiger's Restaurant, said she had two children who went to Valley Head School.
"I don't go to church, but I don't think one person should tell people what they can do," she said. I believe kids should be able to worship like they want."
But Chandler said he is not against prayer unless it's done in a way that conflicts with someone's beliefs.
"If one kid is hurt by this, it needs to be stopped," he said. They can pray all day. That's all right. But they can't force anyone else to."
Chandler said he was to travel to Washington, D.C., today to receive the Freedom Award from the Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
And although his fight against prayer in the schools has been a strain on him and his family, he said, "it's been worth it."
School system administrators "ignored my complaints for 12 years," he said. He said he has no regrets about suing the system. I felt like it was something I needed to do."
DeKalb County School Superintendent Richard Land said DeMent outlined "a very specific road map" for everyone from the governor to teachers and students to follow. He said an outline of the judge's instructions has been prepared, but he declined further comment until he can meet with the school board.
In Madison County, officials had allowed voluntary, student-led prayer at graduation until May.
Ken Hogan, Madison County's director of secondary education, said county high schools were told not to allow even student-led prayer, based on DeMent's last ruling.
Dr. Charles Carrick, superintendent of the Scottsboro City school system in Jackson County, said that although prayers are not said publicly on school property, there are occasions when someone is remembered in a moment of silence.
"We feel like a moment of silence is the best way to acknowledge and honor the great diversity in our community," he said." We have very good support from the churches here.
"Folks, while they may not agree with decisions that appointed judges make from time to time, understand that we are a nation of laws."
In Marshall County, the Guntersville School System was apparently among the last of the four school systems to decide on "a moment of silence" rather than a student-led prayer at high school football games.
The Guntersville board last month said that because of recent federal court rulings, there wouldn't be a student-led prayer at the high school's first home football game this year.
Student-led prayer had been allowed over the public address system for three years under the 1993 state law that was struck down.
Student-led prayers began at Guntersville games in 1994 after a dispute over whether they should be allowed. Two longtime board members who maintained that such prayers were unconstitutional resigned shortly after the issue came to ahead at meeting attended by about 100 students, parents and others.
The superintendents of the Arab and Albertville school systems said their high schools have a moment of silence" at ball games.
Arab Superintendent Edwin Cooley said Arab schools stopped student-led prayers seven to eight years ago, about the time a federal court ruled against the Douglas County, Georgia, school system over the prayers on public address systems.
"It is my belief that Arab schools have been obeying the law and we have no plans to make any changes," Cooley said.
Dr. Jim Pratt, Albertville superintendent, said the school system has tried to abide by the law as we have understood it and we will continue to do so."
Although there have been student-led prayers, Pratt said, the decision was made this year to instead have a moment of silence.
Jackie Thrower, superintendent of Marshall County Schools, said some of the system's high schools have had student-led prayer, while others have had a moment of silence.
Dr. Fred Lackey of Athens, a past president of the Alabama Baptist State Convention, was disappointed by the ruling.
"We can't pray too much," said Lackey. "I hate to see religion being legislated," said Lackey.
Dr. Les Bevins, Limestone County superintendent of education, expected a sweeping decree because I ran into the same problem in Georgia" as a educator there.
Bevins said there are no directives urging school prayer in the county system.
But Joel Glaze, a member of the Limestone County school board for 15 years, predicted "the day will come the judge will regret what he did."
"Ours is a country founded on religious freedoms," said Glaze. "Judges don't seem to understand that."
James Calls Religious
by Stan Bailey
The Birmingham News
November 4, 1997
Montgomery -- A federal judge's injunction barring school-sponsored religious activities in Alabama public schools violates students' First Amendment rights, Governor Fob James said Monday. Attorney General Bill Pryor agreed and said he will challenge the order.
"A federal court does not have any legal authority to require public school officials to discriminate against religious speech," Pryor said Monday.
"For that reason, I will challenge those aspects of the injunction that are contrary to the First Amendment and the latest decisions of the [U.S.] Supreme Court." Pryor would not elaborate on how he would challenge the order. Typically the first step is to ask the trial judge to reconsider.
In his weekly radio call-in program, James called U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent's injunction "a grievous error" and "judicial usurpation." He promised a detailed response to the order today.
"In my judgment, it's a case that will be a landmark case in this country relative to the First Amendment," James said.
"His injunction, in my opinion, was one of the worst cases of judicial usurpation I've ever seen." Federal judges, James said, "have no business sticking their noses" in what is being done in the schools.
One caller suggested that James ask the American Civil Liberties Union for help if school children were being denied the opportunity to pray.
James said the ACLU, whose lawyers sought to block school-sponsored prayers in DeKalb County schools and object to coaches leading their teams in prayer, "take just the opposite view."
In a written statement, Pryor said he will challenge as "overly broad" portions of DeMent's highly detailed ban on school-sanctioned religious activities such as prayer, scripture readings and distribution of religious materials.
Ruling in a lawsuit filed by a DeKalb County assistant principal, DeMent said the Constitution permits "a brief personal expression by a student which contains religious references during a commencement exercise or student address," but does not permit an individual student to "invite audience participation or response."
DeMent's injunction was based on his declaration in March that the state's 1993 school prayer law is unconstitutional.
The 1993 law, which permitted "non-sectarian, non-proselytizing" prayers in public schools, allowed state-sponsored prayers that are prohibited by the Constitution and also banned student religious activities that are protected by the Constitution, DeMent said.
"I believe the injunction [last week] is overly broad and ironically suffers from some of the same flaws that the court [DeMent] identified in March," Pryor said.
"Some parts of the injunction actually violate the First Amendment and do not conform to the most recent decisions of the [U.S.] Supreme Court, because they curtail and limit voluntary religious expressions by students and private citizens."
Pryor said he didn't criticize DeMent's March ruling because he "agreed with the federal court that the 1993 law actually curtailed the First Amendment rights of students to pray and express their religious beliefs, although the Legislature did not intend that result."
Etowah Rally's Message:
'Our Kids Want to Pray'
by Rose Livingston
The Birmingham News
November 4, 1997
Gadsden, Alabama -- Hundreds of people gathered in prayer Monday at the entrance of the Etowah County courthouse to protest a federal court order restricting prayer in schools.
"Last week changed the lives of everyone standing here," said Dean Young, head of the Christian Family Association, who assembled the rally to decry a 17-page order handed down Thursday by U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent. "We will not stand for this indoctrination. Our kids want to pray in this country."
That desire was demonstrated during a walkout at West End High School on Friday when about 200 students left class for 10 minutes to show their opposition, according to senior Rob Scholl, who ridiculed monitors assigned to watch for violations in the DeKalb County schools.
"If you want to find someone praying, you might as well come on our way," he said. "We ain't going to give up. They'll have to kill me before I'm going to stop praying."
And legal action was taken in Etowah County court Monday to head off any efforts at enforcing the religion guidelines in local schools. Gadsden attorney Tammy Parris filed a petition on behalf of some West End parents contending that it would violate constitutional rights, due process and limit rights to free speech.
"If we allow this order to become law, what we have done is we have altered the course of history," Mrs. Parris told the crowd.
She called it "pre-ordained" that the case had been assigned to Etowah County Circuit Judge Roy S. Moore, who has become known as the "praying judge" for his vow to begin court with prayer and display the Ten Commandments in his courtroom.
Young called on Governor Fob James and state judges to intervene before the restrictions are put in place statewide.
"We want you to stop this tyranny from one man," Young said. "We want you to let our kids pray in schools."
Judge Defines Church-State
Rules for Alabama
by Mark Walsh
November 5, 1997
A federal judge issued a sweeping injunction last week prohibiting many long-standing religious practices in Alabama public schools, including prayers in class or over the intercom, graduation prayers, religious assemblies, and distribution of Bibles to students.
U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent of Montgomery, Alabama, also ordered the school district at the center of the lawsuit to provide in-service training to its staff members about the dictates of the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against government establishment of religion.
The training must cover "the general issue of school officials' tolerance for diversity in religious opinion and duty of neutrality in matters of religion," the judge said in his October 29 order.
Judge DeMent also said he would appoint a monitor to check that the DeKalb County school district in northwest Alabama was complying with the injunction.
"This is a reminder that the [U.S.] Constitution still rules in Alabama," said Steven Green, a lawyer with Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The Washington-based advocacy group helped represent Michael Chandler, an assistant principal in DeKalb County who charged in a lawsuit last year that district officials allowed religious practices throughout the county's schools that were clearly unconstitutional.
Mr. Chandler said last week that some schools in the county continued this year to have prayers at graduation or at football games.
Judge DeMent "is basically stating what the law is," Mr. Chandler said. "They need someone here to monitor, and the teachers need some in-service training."
State Law Blocked
Judge DeMent's injunction also barred Governor Fob James Jr. and other state officials from enforcing a 1993 state law authorizing voluntary student prayers in public schools. The judge had ruled the law unconstitutional in a separate ruling in the case last March.
The injunction comes amid an intense debate in Alabama over religious expression in the public schools and in other government places. It also comes as Congress is debating whether to amend the U.S. Constitution to guarantee greater religious expression by students and others. A House subcommittee approved such an amendment last week.
Earlier this year, Governor James said he would call out the National Guard to block a court order demanding that a state judge remove a homemade carving of the Ten Commandments from his courtroom. The battle over the religious plaque has drawn nationwide attention. The U.S. House passed a resolution in March supporting Etowah County Judge Roy S. Moore's display of the commandments.
Meanwhile, in June, Mr. James wrote a letter to Judge DeMent urging him to reconsider his decision striking down the voluntary-student-prayer law.
The Republican governor's 34-page letter said the U.S. Supreme Court had gone too far in limiting religious expression in schools and the public square. He also argued that the high court has no authority to apply the First Amendment to the states.
Judge DeMent responded in late July with a three-page memorandum that said "the governor's invitation to ignore the Supreme Court's interpretation of the 14th Amendment ... poses a serious threat to our system of democratic self-government." The 14th Amendment, through the interpretation of the Supreme Court, has made the Bill of Rights applicable to the states.
Eric Johnston, a special counsel to Governor James on the school prayer lawsuit, said last week's injunction would chill student religious expression that is constitutional.
"The order is so stridently worded toward school officials that it is going to make them afraid to allow anything," Mr. Johnston said. "You would think there had been such egregious religious activity in DeKalb County that the judge is punishing them. But DeKalb was just doing what most districts were doing in Alabama."
Which was exactly the problem, Mr. Chandler's lawsuit contended. District officials allowed prayers at graduation and at the start of football games. They allowed representatives of Gideons International to distribute Bibles to students on school grounds. There were occasional religious-themed student assemblies and instances of students reciting prayers in class, the suit alleged.
Judge DeMent's order bars all of those activities. But the judge appeared to emphasize that students still have the right to pray silently, to wear religious symbols, and to express their own religious beliefs in homework and artwork. The order also says schools may use religious texts for educational purposes "in an objective and academic manner."
The judge barred all organized prayers at graduation, whether by students, clergy, or school staff members. But the injunction does not prohibit "a brief personal expression by a student which contains religious references during a commencement exercise or student address (for example, a student may express thanks to Deity for his or her academic success)." School officials cannot encourage such acts, and they cannot invite audience response, the judge said.
Richard Land, the superintendent of the 7,000-student DeKalb County district, released a statement that said the judge "has outlined a very specific road map" for state and local school officials to follow. But the school board will decide what to do next, he added.
Donald B. Sweeney Jr., a lawyer representing the DeKalb district, praised the judge's order.
"Judge DeMent has taken a confused and confusingly complex subject, and created for school officials a bright line that demarcates what and how students and school employees can exercise freedom of religion," he said in a written release.
Mr. Johnston, the governor's lawyer, said Mr. Sweeney was too willing "to turn the other cheek" and give up the fight to allow greater religious expression in the schools.
Alabama To Fight School Prayer Ruling
by Larry Mundinger and Barb Buttram (with Conrad Goeringer)
November 5, 1997
Resistance is building to last week's decision by a federal judge in Alabama striking down the state's controversial 1993 school prayer law.
Thursday, Judge Ira DeMent ruled that the Establishment Clause prohibits vocal prayers and officially encouraged religious activity in public schools. DeMent's order barred prayers at sporting events, graduation ceremonies and other official activities; the judge also warned that violations will be subject to contempt proceedings.
But there are already reports of scattered resistance throughout the state, including an incident where students at one school broke out into "spontaneous prayer" at a football game.
It's not just a handful of students and teachers, though, who might be resisting. In Montgomery, Governor Fob James has announced that he will still resist an order which requires removal of a Ten Commandments plaque from a county court room. The controversial Judge Roy Moore, the Etowah County jurist who has attracted national attention for displaying the Decalogue and opening court with a Baptist invocation, has issued a temporary order which he says prevents enforcement of DeMent's ruling in public schools in his northeastern Alabama county.
Stirred on by official defiance of DeMent's order defending state-church separation, more than 400 students at Boaz High School congregated for group prayer; an estimated 60 students at Sardis High school walked out of classes earlier this week. One student told reporters, "We don't want to have to pray under our breath."
State Will Appeal
Meanwhile, Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor announced on Monday that he will fight Judge DeMent's order, and criticized the ruling as "overly broad." Governor James, speaking on his weekly radio program, added that DeMent, "has made a grievous error. It is so grievous that there is not enough time on this station to explain it." He added that the injunction "was one of the worst cases of judicial usurpation of the rights of the people I have ever seen."
Some school administrators, however, have praised Judge DeMent. Donald Sweeney, attorney for the DeKalb County school board said that the ruling clarified the whole subject of prayer and religious ritual in public schools.
It remains to be seen just how far student "prayer warriors," churches and politicians will go in the battle to put prayer in government. Governor James has already threatened to use troops to defend the posting of the Ten Commandments in government buildings. One listener to the governor's talk show asked if he was willing to use similar resistance to preserve school prayer. James replied, "I'm not ready to answer that question until we see how this plays out."
Prayer-Curb Protest Draws Suspensions
by Kent Faulk
The Birmingham News
November 6, 1997
Albertville, Alabama -- About 55 middle school students were suspended Wednesday after walking out of class and marching to City Hall to protest a federal judge's order limiting prayer in schools.
The protest was one in a series by students in Marshall County and at least two surrounding counties since U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent's ruling last week. Dement ruled federal law does not permit most vocal prayers or officially encourage religious activity in public school classrooms and at school events.
On Wednesday, about 65 students at Alabama Avenue Middle School in Albertville walked out as classes began and marched about three blocks to Albertville City Hall to protest DeMent's ruling.
Until the ruling, a student had been allowed to pray during morning announcements at the school.
Albertville school Superintendent James Pratt said he talked to the students at City Hall and explained the ruling. He said he told them that while the ruling does ban organized prayer, it does not take away their personal right to pray as long as it does not infringe on other students.
Pratt said he told the students that if they returned to class they would be listed as unexcused tardy. He said if they did not return to class they would be suspended from school the rest of Wednesday and today.
About 55 students were suspended, Pratt said.
"I understand their concerns but we are still obligated to abide by applicable court decisions as well as state and federal laws," Pratt said.
Protests at the middle school and Albertville High School, located on the same campus, began Tuesday morning when about 100 students left the school and went to the football field to pray. The students returned to class a short time later and no discipline was taken.
Pratt said no protests were staged at the high school Wednesday.
He said he met with teachers Wednesday to discuss ways the students could vent their frustration. "We think there are appropriate ways of making their feelings known.... One of the ways is letter-writing campaigns," he said.
Any such campaign would be done as part of the school writing curriculum, Pratt said.
At Boaz High School on Tuesday, about 400 students walked out of the school to pray for about 10 minutes, said Boaz High School Principal Randall Morton. The assistant principal told three students who refused to return to class they were suspended until they could return with their parents for conferences with school officials, he said. The three students returned to class Wednesday.
Morton said 100 students walked out of school to pray Wednesday morning and school officials announced Wednesday that any future protests will be regarded as skipping school.
"They've made their statement and now it is time for them to be back in class," he said.
Students Have "Green Light"
to Challenge Court Decision
by Conrad Goeringer and Larry Mundinger
November 6, 1997
Taking a cue from Alabama political leaders who say they will "resist" and challenge constitutional separation of state and church, hundreds of students from two schools showed up late for class on Tuesday following protests over a recent ruling about prayer and religion in public schools.
The protests were against the decision of federal Judge Ira DeMent, who last week struck down Alabama's controversial 1993 law which permitted prayer in taxpayer funded public schools. News reports say that a total of about 600 students participated; about 300 students from Alabama Avenue Middle School joined another group from Albertville High School at the school football stadium, just as classes were ready to begin. The students prayed and sang religious hymns for about twenty minutes, then filed into their class rooms.
At Boat High School, nearly 500 students rallied on the school's tennis courts as classes convened; they were joined by about 20 students from the nearby Middle School. That rally also lasted about twenty minutes, and featured speeches and Bible readings. According to Assistant Principal Thomas Plunkett, most of that group returned to classes, but two students ended up being suspended "pending parental conferences," when after about three hours they did not show up. Plunkett emphasized to reporters that the students, "were not suspending for protesting the prayer issue, but for not returning to class."
While similar behavior over other issues like sex-ed or political protest would likely have officials concerned, the prayer-in-school demonstrations are getting a green light from top politicians, including Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor. Larry Mundinger reports that Pryor was the featured guest on the "Alabama Live" show yesterday, hosted by Leland Whaley. When asked out the growing student protests against Judge DeMent's ruling, Pryor gushed, "It warms my heart to see kids pray and exercise their First Amendment rights."
Mundinger also reports that on a talk show out of Athens on radio station WVNN, host Kevin Miller interviewed a member of the Limestone County School Board "who was encouraging students to engage in similar protests." There is also a report that an invocation was recently held at a state cosmetology licensing examination.
Hundreds of protesters have also gathered in front of the Etowah County courthouse, supporting Judge Roy Moore for his policy of posting the Decalogue in his courtroom and beginning judicial sessions with a Baptist invocation. That issue links the school prayer decision of Judge DeMent with the "hot button" issue of prayer and religious display in other government venues.
Governor James is now speaking out against DeMent's ruling as well. On Wednesday, he accused the judge of obeying "the political agendas of the U.S. Supreme Court justice" who have "illegally rewritten the constitution."
"I will resist Judge DeMent's order by every legal and political means with every ounce of strength I possess," declared the governor. He affirmed that the state would be appealing DeMent's decision, and added, "I believe that the heartfelt prayers of Alabama citizens, whether uttered publicly or privately, are rendered to God and God alone, and that the federal government has no right to interfere."
Earlier, anticipating DeMent's decision in the school prayer case, James submitted a brief suggesting that the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights did not apply to individual states, at least in matters of religion.