News Articles

Ala. Baptists address school prayer ruling

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (BP)–Coming on the heels of an emotional school prayer decision, Alabama Baptists voiced opposition to a federal judge’s Oct. 29 ruling, during their Nov. 18-19 annual meeting at Whitesburg Baptist Church, Huntsville.
Nearly three weeks before the annual meeting, U.S. District Court Judge Ira DeMent placed an injunction on certain unconstitutional religious activity in Alabama’s public schools. Aimed at a rural county school system in northeast Alabama where common religious practices at school have gone beyond the scope of the First Amendment, DeMent claimed, his injunction in DeKalb County has touched off a frenzy of emotional reactions on both sides.
With less than 1,000 messengers voting, approximately two-thirds favored a resolution that opposed Judge DeMent’s decision. Debate lasted approximately 30 minutes on the resolution that committee members spent 11 hours drafting. The resolution asks messengers to oppose Judge DeMent’s ruling that, it claims, “has inhibited our public institutions from reinforcing the values upon which our country was established.”
The resolution also asks messengers to support state leaders in “challenging the overbroad and objectionable portions of the order” and to help the convention provide training to students on what their First Amendment rights are concerning religious liberty. The resolution does not give detail on specific overbroad and objectionable portions of DeMent’s order.
Wayne Flint, a member of First Baptist Church, Auburn, objected to messengers supporting state leadership, especially Gov. Fob James. A history professor at Auburn University, Flint asked those present how many had read James’ 34-page defense of school prayer submitted to DeMent last spring.
“I have read it, and I think we would be embarrassed as Baptists to say we support him,” Flint said, pointing specifically to James’ claim that separation of church and state began in 1917 in Russia.
Wayne Milam, co-pastor of East Gadsden Baptist Church, argued that DeMent’s order calls for an end to school prayer. He said he is particularly concerned about intimidating students from exercising their religious rights by the judge’s order of monitors to ensure no illegal religious activity is occurring in the schools.
“We are talking about freedom from intimidation,” Milam said.
However, Chriss Doss, a Birmingham attorney, stated students have lost no constitutional rights on religious expression from DeMent’s decision.
“Students today can pray a voluntary prayer or express themselves religiously as much as they ever could,” Doss said, discounting that intimidation is taking place.
Charles Freeman, pastor of Hillwood Baptist Church, Huntsville, said, “The convention is trying to be more politically correct than spiritually correct.”
But Ora Parr, a former school teacher and messenger from Highlands Baptist Church, Huntsville, told her fellow messengers to quit wasting time making resolutions and get on with spreading the gospel.
“We want the Ten Commandments up, but how many of us have them on our church walls or in our homes?” she asked. “We have to be careful not to turn our responsibility over to the government.”
During a Tuesday news conference with Dean Young of the Christian Family Association, Young chastised Bob Terry, editor of The Alabama Baptist, for stating that Judge DeMent’s order does not violate any of the constitutional guarantees Baptists have fought to keep. Standing with eight Alabama Baptists who also opposed the court decision, Young claimed the court was wrong to cut out all student-initiated prayer.
“If a student wants to get up at graduation and lead classmates in prayer, that is OK,” Young said, denying such activity would appear as a school-sponsored prayer. Of the nine members speaking during the press conference, Young was the only one who had read Judge DeMent’s ruling.
Alabama Baptists also opposed the National Endowment for the Arts in a resolution because of some objectionable material produced by artists and creators funded through NEA.
In the midst of continuing financial struggles at the University of Mobile, messengers chose to keep funding the state’s youngest Baptist school. In spite of the university’s lack of compliance with a 1994 agreement regarding its campus in San Marcos, Nicaragua, messengers chose not to penalize students for the university’s past mistakes.
The 1994 agreement stated the University of Mobile would stop sending funding to its branch campus in San Marcos, Nicaragua, that former president Michael Magnoli started without seeking convention approval. The 1994 agreement also called for the Nicaragua school to pay back the $2.3 million in convention funding invested in the LABC. For two years, Magnoli and key leaders reported the university was well under way with its payback plan.
However, it was revealed last spring that not only had the $2.3 million not been paid back to the Mobile campus, an additional $1 million had been sent to Nicaragua.
Now the university faces severe financial difficulties as interim President Walter Hovell tightens the budget. According to the new agreement, any money sent to Nicaragua will have an equivalent amount deducted from the following quarter’s convention funding to the Mobile campus, which equals nearly $2.1 million this year. The money withdrawn will be placed in a scholarship fund for students.
Although university officials are claiming Mobile is “alive and well,” the convention audit committee reported “continuing grave concerns over the financial deterioration” of the university and the “lack of independence” of the school’s auditor, Wilkins, Miller, Stalcup & Brown of Mobile. Steve Richardson, a Tuscaloosa CPA and upcoming chair of the convention audit committee, explained that the committee does believe the University of Mobile is “in the process of healing, but it is early and many things could crush that.”
“There are a lot of things that worry me as a CPA,” Richardson noted, pointing to the significant drop in enrollment as a key problem. Although Mobile officials are denying that the 5.4 percent drop is crucial, the cut represents an $820,000 dip into the budget — a budget which had expected a $400,000 surplus. “There was a lot of damage by Dr. Magnoli that is going to linger.”
In other convention business, Alabama Baptists unanimously adopted a new set of bylaws without any discussion or changes. The bylaws, which must be approved by two-thirds vote again next year, remove current limitations on entities regarding their relationship with the convention. Entities no longer must seek convention approval before doing a host of financial activities such as buying, selling or leasing property. Entities may also choose to appoint their own trustees for convention approval.
Three years ago, messengers stopped short of denying funding to Samford University for voting to let current trustees appoint their successors. Last year, the convention entered into a covenant agreement with Samford allowing the university to appoint trustees that the convention would approve. The new bylaws will allow all entities such freedom.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Alabama named its first full-time coordinator during the annual meeting Nov. 17. Mart Gray, minister of music at First Baptist Church in Elba, will take the helm. A member of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, Gray was contested for appointment to the executive committee of the state board because of his affiliation with Alabama CBF.
While several spoke against his membership because of “dual alignment,” James Walters of First Baptist Church, Mobile, told messengers to be consistent. “If we are going to be consistent, we need to penalize churches who work with other groups,” he said. “Are we going to deny representation because of that? Are we going to ask these churches not to give? I appeal to you to be more inclusive than exclusive as Jesus would.”
By an 11-vote margin, Gray was not removed from his executive committee appointment.
Alabama Baptists also adopted a record 1998 base budget of $34.3 million, a 5.4 percent increase over the current year. The budget continues to allocate 42.3 percent for Southern Baptist Convention national and international missions and ministries.
Messengers also voted to extend Alabama’s partnerships with Baptists in Hawaii and Spain until December 1999.
Leon Ballard, pastor of York (Ala.) Baptist Church was re- elected convention president, as was James “Buddy” Gray, pastor of Hunter Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, as first vice president. Tom Whatley, pastor of Woodward Avenue Baptist Church, Muscle Shoals, and chairman of the state board of missions, was elected second vice president over Charles Brown, pastor of Government Street Baptist Church, Mobile, 437-215.
Next year’s annual meeting will be Nov. 17-18 at Shades Mountain Baptist Church, Birmingham.

    About the Author

  • Laurie A. Lattimore