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Ala. injunction requires stop to prayer in schools

FORT PAYNE, Ala. (BP)–In Alabama’s ongoing school prayer battle, U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent issued a permanent injunction Oct. 29 against the governor, state attorney general and state board of education from enforcing a 1993 state law permitting prayer in schools.
Officials in DeKalb County had cited the law in their defense of various religious practices at the schools. DeMent ruled in March that the 1993 law violated the First Amendment.
DeMent’s Oct. 29 injunction was his legal response to DeKalb County officials who refused to halt the religious activity DeMent determined unconstitutional in the March decision in a 1995 lawsuit filed by Michael Chandler, assistant principal at Valley Head High School in DeKalb County.
Chandler, raised a Baptist but currently a sporadic attender of the Unitarian Church, sued because, among other things, prayers were allowed during assemblies and sporting events; Gideons were free to pass out Bibles during school hours and on campus; and students attended religious clubs during school hours.
Chandler stated delight in the March decision and the accompanying injunction. He noted, however, he is anxious to “get on with teaching kids like we’re supposed to be doing.”
Chandler’s lawyer, Pam Sumners, stated guarded enthusiasm. “I just hope they obey it,” the Birmingham-based attorney said.
Gov. Fob James, in a Nov. 4, statement said he will fight the injunction legally and politically. After DeMent’s March ruling, James submitted a 34-page letter explaining why the Bill of Rights did not apply to the states and therefore the 1993 law superseded the First Amendment. State Attorney General Bill Pryor has since reported that such a view is not the state’s official response to DeMent’s ruling.
Americans United for the Separation of Church and State applauded the decision, noting schools are for “education, not indoctrination.”
However, the American Center for Law and Justice believes the ruling goes beyond protecting the Establishment Clause and impinges on free speech rights. Stuart J. Roth, director of the ACLJ of Alabama, condemned the injunction for prohibiting student-initiated religious activity at school.
DeMent’s injunction does in fact prohibit student-initiated prayer and proselytization during school hours or at school events. His defense is that such activity during school gives the appearance that the school favors religion over nonreligion, a clear violation of the First Amendment.
“The Establishment Clause does not prevent children who attend public schools from learning about these subjects nor from learning about the influence of religion on these subjects,” DeMent stated in his March decision.
DeMent explains religious activity that is not prohibited by his injunction, and he makes a point to say students are not proscribed from praying or expressing their religious beliefs through assignments, reports, art work, religious symbols on clothing and jewelry.

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  • Laurie A. Lattimore