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Judge Halts Daily Intercom Prayers in Miss. District

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A woman who challenged a Mississippi district's tradition of daily prayers over the school intercom last week won a preliminary injunction against the practice in federal court.

The ruling was a first-round victory for Lisa Herdahl, whose lawsuit against the Pontotoc County district has attracted nationwide attention.

Ms. Herdahl, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way, has challenged daily intercom prayers at the North Pontotoc Attendance Center in Ecru, Miss., where five of her six children attend school.

Her children were baptized as Lutherans and currently attend a Pentecostal church. But Ms. Herdahl has said she does not believe organized prayers belong in public schools. Her children have been excused from classrooms while the prayers are read or, sometimes, been given headphones.

The brief daily prayers or Bible readings have been a Pontotoc County tradition for as long as most people in the small community can remember. The district has about 2,600 students.

Ms. Herdahl's challenge has riled the community, in part because her family moved there from Wisconsin about a year and a half ago and some residents view her as an outsider.

School officials have said they believe the daily prayers read by members of a student organization, the Alethea Club, pass constitutional muster because they are student-initiated.

But in his 22-page ruling issued on April 18, U.S. District Judge Neal B. Biggers Jr. of Oxford, Miss., granted the preliminary injunction, saying there is a substantial likelihood that Ms. Herdahl will win her case.

The prayers at North Pontotoc are "substantially similar" to those struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1963 decision in School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, the judge said.

By turning over the school intercom system to a student club to read the daily prayers, the district places its "seal of approval on this practice," he added.

"Contrary to its stated purpose and intent, organized prayer in public schools does not unite students from various backgrounds and beliefs but, instead, segregates students along religious lines," Judge Biggers wrote.

Settlement Negotiations

Judge Biggers said discussions with both sides have led to a partial settlement. Students in grades 7 through 12 will be allowed to hold voluntary student devotionals in the school gym. Younger children may attend the sessions if their parents grant permission, he said.

The judge set March 4 of next year as the trial date for the case.

Jerry Horton, Pontotoc County's superintendent, said the district is considering an appeal.

"We've known all along that based on the court decisions of the past 30 years, we would have an uphill battle," he said last week. "But we think we are right."

The district began immediate compliance with the judge's ruling, he added. "We may not like it, but we don't intend to break the court order."

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