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Oliver Thomas likely monitor of Ala. school prayer ruling

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (BP)–Oliver “Buzz” Thomas, special counsel for the National Council of Churches and former general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, likely will be named to monitor enforcement of a federal judge’s controversial school prayer ruling in Alabama.
Thomas’ selection is “more than likely,” said Pamela Sumners, an attorney for a plaintiff whose suit led to U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent’s Oct. 29 permanent injunction 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.
Thomas, who also serves as special counsel for the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, Nashville, Tenn., was one of three monitors proposed by the school system, all of whom are acceptable to the plaintiff, attorney Sumners, of Birmingham, told Baptist Press Dec. 9.
Thomas, of Maryville, Tenn., near Knoxville, could not be reached for comment Dec. 9.
The other proposed monitors are Charles Haynes, scholar-in- residence at the First Amendment Center and editor of the center’s widely used “Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Education,” and Mirriam Drennen, the center’s education coordinator.
Thomas also is president of his local school board; director of Haley Farm, a Children’s Defense Fund conference center, Clinton, Tenn.; co-author of the ACLU’s first book on church-state law, “The Right to Religious Liberty;” chairman of a broad religious coalition that drafted the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was struck down in a 6-3 U.S. Supreme Court decision last June; an ordained Baptist minister who attended New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary; and a law graduate of the University of Virginia and University of Tennessee.
In the March/April 1995 edition of Fellowship News, published by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Thomas was quoted as telling a Baptist Center for Ethics conference, “It’s time to say no to extremists on both sides. It’s time to say no to the theocrats on the right who would use schools as an evangelistic tool of their church. … It’s time to say no to the far left, the religion police, who run around the public schools looking for any reference to God so they can file a lawsuit.”
DeMent’s ruling has been appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
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.
Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor announced Nov. 7 the state will challenge portions of DeMent’s Oct. 29 injunction. 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 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.
In striking down the state law earlier this year, 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.