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Christian clubs not at issue in Ala. school prayer battle

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–Students’ First Amendment rights have not been jeopardized by the most recent school prayer court decision in Alabama, according to Gene Davis, regional coordinator of First Priority, which promotes legal religious expression on school campuses.
“I think most people think Judge (Ira) DeMent’s ruling was an attack on Christianity,” Davis told The Alabama Baptist newsjournal, recounting parents’ fears that Christian clubs are banned from meeting on campus by the U.S. district judge’s permanent injunction Oct. 29 against the governor, state attorney general and state board of education in enforcing a 1993 state law permitting prayer in schools.
Davis explained the Equal Access Act, which states religious clubs have as much right to meet on campus as other clubs during noninstructional hours, is actually strengthened by DeMent’s ruling.
The judge even points out in his ruling the Equal Access Act is constitutional and remains in effect for school systems across the state.
“Noncurricular clubs like First Priority and Fellowship of Christian Athletes are perfectly legal. If anything, that is reinforced in the ruling,” Davis said.
Nevertheless, DeMent’s ruling is stirring more court debate.
Gov. Fob James’ promised Nov. 4 to fight DeMent’s injunction “by every legal and political means, with every ounce of strength I possess.”
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.
And Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor announced Nov. 7 the state will challenge portions of the ruling.
Pryor described parts of the injunction as hindering First Amendment rights of students. Pryor had said in March, however, he agreed with DeMent’s decision that the 1993 Alabama school prayer law was unconstitutional.
Now specifically, Pryor said, his action will appeal parts of the ruling blocking vocal prayer, Bible devotionals and Scripture readings in public school classrooms, Religion News Service reported Nov. 11. DeMent’s injunction also banned school employees from distributing religious literature and other material in schools, on school grounds and at commencement ceremonies, and it banned use of school public address systems for delivering religious messages, RNS reported.
Pryor also has announced Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, based in Virginia Beach, Va., will assist in appealing DeMent’s injunction.
Sekulow described DeMent’s order as unconstitutional because it is “vague, over-reaching and flies in the face of numerous Supreme Court rulings,” RNS reported.
In addition to the court battles, the judge’s injunction also 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.
“Students do not give up their First Amendment rights,” First Priority’s Davis stated, noting if students want to meet together every day at lunch or before school to pray together, such religious freedom is allowed. “I would tell students not to get upset and walk out in protest over this ruling. Join First Priority or FCA and help reach your peers.”
Agreeing with Davis, the state coordinator for FCA, John Gibbons, also emphasized Christian and other religious groups are not affected by DeMent’s injunction. FCA is in no legal danger, he said.
Ronald Bell, principal at Fort Payne High School and a member of First Baptist Church, Rainsville, said, “Most people of any religious denomination see only as far as the headlines that say, ‘Kids can’t pray in school,’ and won’t go any further in understanding.”
But, as Roger Graham, pastor of Rainesville’s Nazareth Baptist Church, stated, “Kids can come to school and freely tell what they did over the weekend. They should be able to express their faith also.”
DeMent’s injunction comes eight months after he ruled the 1993 state law permitting prayer in school violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. While the free exercise clause permits expression of all religious beliefs, the establishment clause protects against the state — including public schools — endorsing one religion over another, or religion over nonreligion.
Under those constitutional guidelines, DeMent determined certain religious activity in DeKalb County schools was 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.

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  • L. Lattimore, J. Davis Rash & A. Toalston