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Principal Appeals Firing in Prayer Dispute

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The Jackson, Miss., school board is to decide this week whether to uphold the firing of a high school principal who allowed students to read prayers over the school intercom on three mornings last month.

The case of Principal Bishop Knox of Wingfield High School has become a cause celebre in Mississippi and across the nation.

Gov. Kirk Fordice has appeared at rallies and on national television shows to support student-led prayers in public schools.

State lawmakers have proposed legislation to cut funds to districts that bar voluntary student prayers. Students who supported the ousted principal staged walkouts for several days late last month, and most avoided suspensions only through the intervention of a public-interest law organization run by the religious broadcaster Pat Robertson.

"I think this case has assumed a life of its own,'' said Lynn Watkins, the director of the Mississippi chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "People are very concerned about the problems they see with our youth. They want a very simple answer to a very difficult problem.''

Last week, Mr. Knox and Jackson school district officials testified before a hearing officer about the events that led to the principal's Nov. 24 firing. The hearing officer will make a recommendation to the school board, which is to decide Dec. 15 whether to uphold Mr. Knox's dismissal.

A Vote To Pray

Early last month, Wingfield High students voted 490 to 96 in favor of having a student-led prayer read over the intercom system each morning.

Despite advice from a school district lawyer that prayers would violate the U.S. Constitution's ban on government establishment of religion, Mr. Knox allowed the morning prayers for three days before he was put on administrative leave.

Jim Keith, a lawyer for the Jackson school district, said last week that Mr. Knox later was fired not for allowing the prayers, but for insubordination and neglect of duty for refusing to follow legal advice to stop the practice.

"It was the manner in which he handled it,'' Mr. Keith said. "He's been very stubborn about it.''

Mr. Knox said in an interview last week that he based his actions on an opinion by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that allowed student-initiated and student-led prayers at a public high school graduation. The Fifth Circuit's decision in Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School District was left to stand by the U.S. Supreme Court in June and has been much debated in school-law circles. (See Education Week, June 16, 1993.)

"I still maintain I made the right decision to permit the students to use the intercom to say a prayer,'' Mr. Knox said. "If their vote had been no, there would not have been a prayer.''

Ms. Watkins of the A.C.L.U. said the school district was right to advise against student-led prayers.

"There were at least 96 students who voted against prayer,'' she said. "It is an infringement of at least 96 students' religious liberties. You can't submit the Bill of Rights to a popularity contest.''

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