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Judge’s prayer ruling in Ala. overturned by court of appeals

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (BP)–A federal appeals court ruling that overturns a federal judge’s restrictions against school prayer in DeKalb County, Ala., is “a total victory,” said Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor.
The July 13 ruling is a “major victory for student religious speech in public schools,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice who was appointed a deputy attorney general for the state in challenging restrictions imposed by U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent in 1997.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit has sent “a clear message to the ACLU and its allies that censorship of religious speech will not be tolerated in our courts,” Sekulow said. “The license to censor has been revoked.”
Sekulow added, “This case has generated national attention and will be examined closely by those on both sides of the debate.”
Pryor said the victory means that children “do not surrender their constitutional rights when they attend a public school in Alabama.”
As reported by the Birmingham News, Pryor had appealed portions of DeMent’s sweeping injunction that Pryor contended infringed on students’ rights. The federal appeals court agreed that DeMent went too far in prohibiting student-led prayers and religious speech in DeKalb County schools, and the three-judge panel ordered DeMent to rewrite his orders so that students’ religious rights are protected.
However, ACLU attorney Pamela Sumners of Birmingham who represented a DeKalb school vice principal, Michael Chandler, and his son in the suit, contended to the Birmingham News, “Some 90 to 95 percent of the case wasn’t even up there on appeal.” Among other things, the court said DeMent was not out of bounds in appointing a monitor to check on religious activities in DeKalb schools, the News reported. And the judges agreed there was evidence that DeKalb school officials had made “many sincere but unconstitutional efforts” to encourage or participate in student religious activities.
DeMent had prohibited school officials not only from leading vocal prayers or other religious speech at events such as graduation exercises and football games but also from permitting students to do so, the News recapped.
Sumners told the News she will talk to her clients about whether to appeal and claimed the federal panel’s decision amounts to “judicial activism … at odds with 30 years of U.S. Supreme Court precedents.”
The ACLU, on behalf of the Chandler, had argued that student religious speech in a public school setting amounts to state speech because students are a “captive audience,” the News recounted. The appellate court, however, ruled, “So long as school personnel do not participate in or actively supervise student-initiated speech, DeKalb [school officials] cannot constitutionally prohibit students from speaking religiously, and the injunction cannot require it to.”
The court continued, “Ultimately, the issue in this case is not whether school officials may prescribe prayer or enlist surrogates to that end. They may not.
“The first principle must always be that genuinely student-initiated religious speech must be permitted.” The judges also stated that student religious speech also must be treated the same as secular speech by students in the public schools.
“The suppression of student-initiated religious speech is neither necessary to, nor does it achieve, constitutional neutrality towards religion,” the court said.
Chandler, assistant principal at Valley Head High School who brought the lawsuit in 1996, had 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.
Sekulow and the Virginia-based American Center for Law and Justice provided counsel to the state at no fee.
Oral arguments were presented before the panel in December of last year.
The Birmingham News also reported that the 11th Circuit also rejected former Gov. Fob James’ contention that DeMent’s injunction should be overturned because the First Amendment doesn’t apply in Alabama.
Dean Young of Gadsden, executive director of the Alabama chapter of the American Family Association, told the News his group is “excited about that part of the ruling which said Judge DeMent went too far” but he contended that Pryor didn’t go far enough in his appeal.
Pryor should have fought for the rights of teachers and coaches to pray with their students, Young told the News, because Alabamians believe “it’s OK to acknowledge God.” Young also didn’t like the court’s telling DeMent to rewrite the injunction. “It’s giving him another chance,” he said.