News Articles

Ala. officials issue guidelines for school religious activities

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (BP)–A list of 10 “permissible activities” has been distributed to Alabama school superintendents by the state superintendent of education and attorney general.
The memorandum from the two state officials notes that key portions of a recent federal injunction against various school-related religious activities applies “only in DeKalb County.” They “do not apply to other school districts in the state of Alabama.”
In a joint news release with State Superintendent of Education Ed Richardson Dec. 8, Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor said: “Children and parents throughout Alabama have been alarmed by the confusion that their own rights to religious expression are threatened by the order that does, indeed, set serious and unconstitutional limits for DeKalb County.”
U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent issued a permanent injunction Oct. 29 prohibiting the governor, state attorney general and state board of education from enforcing a 1993 state law permitting prayer in schools and prohibiting such practices as vocal prayer, Bible devotionals and Scripture readings specifically in DeKalb County schools.
Pryor and Richardson said the 10 guidelines are “based on prior opinions by the United States Supreme Court and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals,” not DeMent’s injunction.
The 10 guidelines “are intended to be instructive and not all- inclusive,” Richardson and Pryor noted. The guidelines address such matters as student-initiated prayer meetings, teacher instruction in religious areas and use of holiday music and nativity scenes.
Pryor noted he is challenging portions of DeMent’s order “which set inappropriate restrictions” in an appeal to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Pryor appealed to Alabamians “to remain calm and patient as we work within the legal system to provide justice in the end.”
The 10 guidelines:
— “Students may voluntarily engage in individual or group prayer during non-instructional time or at school-sponsored events. This includes individual or group prayer before or after athletic events. School officials (e.g. coaches) should neither encourage nor discourage individual or group prayer. Organization or direction of a prayer by a school official would not be appropriate.”
— “Students may voluntarily engage in religious discussions during non-instructional time or at school-sponsored events. Students may speak to and attempt to persuade their peers about religious topics just as they do with regard to political topics.”
— “Students may express religious beliefs in reports, homework and art work, and other written and oral assignments, which should be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance.”
— “Students may distribute religious literature to their schoolmates in accordance with all applicable time, place and manner restrictions applicable to the distribution of literature that is unrelated to school curriculum or activities.”
— “Students may display religious messages or symbols on items of clothing (e.g. cross, menorah, Star of David, etc.) to the same extent that they may display comparable non-religious messages or symbols on items of clothing. Students also may wear particular attire (e.g. yarmulkes, head scarves, etc.) during the school day or at school- sponsored events as part of the students’ religious practices consistent with board policies and State law.”
— “Students in secondary schools must be allowed access to school facilities for meetings of a religious nature, subject to the same limitations placed on non-religious meetings.”
— “Students in secondary schools may have announcements of meetings of a religious nature conveyed in the same manner that announcements are made for meetings of other non-religious groups (e.g. public address system, school newspaper, etc.).”
— “Teachers may teach about religion, including the Bible and other scripture, provided that such teaching concerns the history of religion, comparative religion, the Bible (or other scripture) as literature, and/or the role of religion in the history of the United States. The use of religious symbols (e.g. cross, menorah, symbols of Native American religions) is permitted as a teaching aid or resource provided such symbols are displayed as an example of the cultural and religious subject being taught.”
— “A fixture or symbol that is traditionally associated with a particular religion (e.g. nativity scene, menorah, etc.) may be included as a ‘prop’ in a school holiday production to the same degree that non- religious props are used in school productions, provided such symbols are displayed as an example of the cultural and religious heritage of the holiday.”
— “Traditional holiday music may be included in school productions (e.g. choral events, band activities, etc.) to the same extent that other non-holiday music is included in school productions.”
The Montgomery judge’s injunction came eight months after he ruled that a 1993 state law permitting prayer in school violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which protects against the state — including public schools — endorsing one religion over another, or religion over nonreligion.
In striking down the state law, DeMent ruled that certain religious activities in DeKalb County schools were outside the First Amendment provisions. Michael Chandler, the assistant principal at Valley Head High School who brought the original lawsuit, named praying during school assemblies, sporting events and other school-sponsored events, outside groups like the Gideons passing out Bibles during school hours and on campus and permitting religious clubs during instructional hours as some instances of constitutional violations.
Gov. Fob James’ promised Nov. 4 to fight DeMent’s Oct. 29 injunction “by every legal and political means, with every ounce of strength I possess,” while Etowah County Circuit Judge Roy Moore, who currently is embroiled in his own First Amendment battle, issued a temporary restraining order in his jurisdiction against DeMent’s injunction.
DeMent’s injunction bans DeKalb County school employees from distributing religious literature and other material in schools, on school grounds and at commencement ceremonies, and it bans use of school public address systems for delivering religious messages, according to a Religion News Service report.
In addition to the court battles, the judge’s injunction has spurred student protests, including a walkout by hundreds of students at Boaz (Ala.) High School Nov. 4 who formed a ring to pray — and made the pages of The New York Times for doing so. The newspaper also reported prayer protests by students from Albertville, Crossville, Sardis and Glencoe.