News Articles

Judge’s prayer ruling cited for ‘chilling’ effect across Alabama

DOTHAN, Ala. (BP)–The Dothan (Ala.) High School show choir will be allowed to perform two religious songs in their Christmas program after initially being forced to remove them under pressure from school officials, according to a report by The Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization based in Charlottesville, Va.
The institute recounted Dec. 4: The choir at Dothan High School was preparing 10 songs for a Dec. 9 concert: eight secular, two religious. The principle and the school board, on advice of the school attorney, requested that the religious songs be removed. They also threatened the teachers with disciplinary action if the instruction was not complied with, according to Rutherford.
The school board attorney based his advice on Judge Ira Dement’s Oct. 29 permanent injunction against the DeKalb County school system which, according to The Rutherford Institute, curtails religious speech within that school system. That ruling has been appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. DeMent’s injunction prohibits the governor, state attorney general and state board of education from enforcing a 1993 state law permitting prayer in schools.
“It’s a shame that student speech throughout Alabama is being chilled by Judge Dement’s injunction,” said Kim Hazelwood, eastern regional coordinator for The Rutherford Institute.
Several students felt their First Amendment rights were being violated by this decision. When they told their parents, their parents contacted The Rutherford Institute. A. Eric Johnston, a Rutherford Institute-affiliate attorney in Birmingham, immediately contacted the school board’s counsel and threatened suit in order to protect the students’ religious and free speech rights.
“There’s a large amount of dissatisfaction with Judge Dement’s injunction and the other court orders supporting it,” Johnston wrote. “The significance of this information is that Dothan City public schools should not accept the DeKalb County order as binding on them and should respect the rights of students.”
The school immediately conceded to allow the religious songs, and The Rutherford Institute has offered to represent the school should they be sued by a third party because of their decision.
“Until the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decides what to do with Judge Dement’s injunction, we will continue vigilant protection of the religious and free speech rights of Alabama school children,” Hazelwood said.
Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor announced Nov. 7 the state will challenge portions of DeMent’s ruling blocking vocal prayer, Bible devotionals and Scripture readings in public school classrooms, Religion News Service reported Nov. 11. Pryor also announced that 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.
Gov. Fob James’ promised Nov. 4 to fight DeMent’s 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 also bans 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, 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.
DeMent’s injunction came 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 ruled that 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.