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Judge Faults Board for Suspending Miss. Principal in Prayer Flap

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Bishop Knox returned to his job last week as principal of Wingfield High School in Jackson, Miss., after a county judge ruled that the local school board was wrong to suspend him for allowing students to say prayers over the intercom.

"I'm very content to be back on the job,'' said Mr. Knox, who has become a symbolic figure in the nationwide debate over returning prayer to public schools.

Last November, Wingfield High students approached Mr. Knox and asked whether they could read prayers over the intercom at the beginning of the school day. The students voted 490 to 96 in favor of such prayers. (See Education Week, Dec. 15, 1993.)

Mr. Knox allowed the prayers on three mornings, despite advice from a school district lawyer that they would violate the U.S. Constitution's ban on government establishment of religion.

The principal said he disagreed with the lawyer's interpretation. He believed that a 1992 federal appellate-court ruling that allowed student-initiated, student-led, nonsectarian prayers at a high school graduation would also apply to the morning prayers at Wingfield.

District administrators fired Mr. Knox for disregarding the legal advice. The school board later changed the dismissal to a suspension without pay until the end of the current school year.

The principal's case drew attention across the nation, and it provided the impetus for a new Mississippi law that allows for student-initiated prayers at school events. Gov. Kirk Fordice signed the bill into law last month, but it does not take effect until July 1.

Clear Direction Required

In the meantime, Mr. Knox sued the district to get his job back. In a ruling on April 22, Hinds County Chancery Court Judge W.O. (Chet) Dillard held that the district wrongfully suspended Mr. Knox.

The judge said Mr. Knox did not receive a clear statement from Ben Canada, the superintendent of the Jackson schools, that he should not allow the prayers until the superintendent removed him. He was not bound to follow the lawyer's opinion without clear direction from the superintendent, the judge said.

In an 18-page decision that quotes the Bible as well as the constitution of the former Soviet Union, Judge Dillard also expressed strong support for student-led prayers in public schools.

"We have completely missed the main objective of the founding fathers of our country when we reach the point where we construe our Constitution to allow students to have abortions yet forbid them to pray in our schools,'' he wrote.

The judge said that Mr. Knox did not compel his students to pray and that refusing their request to do so would have infringed on their First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. He ordered the district to reinstate Mr. Knox with back pay and to draft guidelines for allowing student-led prayer.

Jim Keith, a lawyer for the Jackson district, said Judge Dillard's decision would be appealed to the state supreme court. He accused the judge of writing an opinion that expressed his "personal agenda'' on school prayer, abortion, and other issues.

Mr. Knox, who returned to Wingfield on April 25, said he has no plans to reinstate prayer.

"The school district has made it clear it will not allow prayers over the intercom'' for the time being, he said.

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