Alabama Defies Court on School Prayer: Allows for Greater Freedom to Counter Strict Federal Ruling

By Innerst, Carol | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 10, 1997 | Go to article overview

Alabama Defies Court on School Prayer: Allows for Greater Freedom to Counter Strict Federal Ruling


Innerst, Carol, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Defiant Alabama officials have drawn up a list of "permissible" religious activities in public schools in a challenge to what they perceive as "inappropriate restrictions" imposed by a federal court.

The activities include "individual or group prayer before or after athletic events"; the expression of religious beliefs in reports, homework and artwork; and religious messages or symbols on clothing.

"We are trying to give practical guidance to officials," said Attorney General William H. Pryor, who issued the directives jointly with Superintendent of Education Ed Richardson. "We are saying, `Don't exaggerate the importance of one ruling by one court involving one school system when parts of that ruling are still being challenged on appeal.' "

The state guidelines went out Monday to public school superintendents in all jurisdictions except DeKalb County, where school administrator and parent Michael Chandler had sued for and won a permanent injunction to end "school-sponsored religious worship."

In 1995, a teacher of his son Jesse regularly led the class in devotionals from the Bible and asked student volunteers to do the same. Religious devotions at school assemblies and athletic events also have been common in DeKalb and elsewhere in the state.

Officials in DeKalb County allowed the Gideons to distribute Bibles to students and let fundamentalist Christian evangelists into classrooms to give sermons, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which joined with the American Civil Liberties Union to sue Alabama Gov. Fob James Jr. and other state officials on Mr. Chandler's behalf.

Americans United describes Alabama as "the most egregious offender of church-state laws in the nation."

On Oct. 29, U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent issued a permanent injunction that forbade Mr. James and other government officials from enforcing Alabama's 1993 "student-initiated" prayer law or taking any steps to promote religious worship in the public schools.

On Nov. 24, Mr. Pryor filed an appeal for a partial stay of the injunction, arguing it contained "vague and overbroad proscriptions."

Citing one paragraph of the injunction, Mr. Pryor said, "If read literally, it would prohibit the singing of `Silent Night' on a Christmas program."

"We don't have graduation ceremonies coming up soon, but the injunction prohibits any religious expression at graduation," he said. "It says a valedictorian could make a brief thanks to God so long as he doesn't invite the audience to respond.

"The problem with that is a valedictorian is given a podium and a lectern to give a speech, and the injunction doesn't censor that speech in any way except with regard to religion. The valedictorian could give a tribute to his mother and it would be OK, but if his entire speech was a tribute to his best friend, Jesus, it would be prohibited. The injunction is overbroad and vague and has some aspects that would involve censorship. …

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Alabama Defies Court on School Prayer: Allows for Greater Freedom to Counter Strict Federal Ruling
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