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Suit Challenges Religious Practices in Ala. Districts

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An assistant principal in Alabama filed a federal lawsuit last week challenging classroom prayers, Bible distribution, and other religious practices he contends his school district has long condoned in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Michael Chandler, the assistant principal at Valley Head High School, sued the DeKalb County school district after years of complaining about such practices as prayers before graduation ceremonies and football games, classroom distribution of Gideon Bibles, and classroom prayers, his lawyers said.

Mr. Chandler and his son, who attends a school in the 7,285-student DeKalb County system--as well as another plaintiff identified as Jane Doe and her daughter--are being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based advocacy group.

The lawsuit, filed Feb. 1 in U.S. District Court in Montgomery, also challenges a 1993 state law that authorizes student-initiated prayers at "compulsory or noncompulsory" student assemblies, graduation ceremonies, and athletic contests. The suit says the law and the challenged practices violate the First Amendment's prohibition against government establishment of religion.

Alabama was one of several states to consider or adopt such a law after the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993 declined to disturb a lower-court ruling that endorsed student-led, nonsectarian graduation prayers.

Just last month, however, a federal appeals court struck down a Mississippi law that is nearly identical to Alabama's. The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit said the Mississippi law "tells students that the state wants them to pray." (See Education Week, Jan. 17, 1996.)

The 5th Circuit's ruling does not cover Alabama.

The new suit also comes as the U.S. House of Representatives is weighing measures that would amend the Constitution to provide stronger guarantees of student religious expression in public schools.

The Talladega, Ala., city school board is also named as a defendant in the suit, which cites the inclusion of prayers at the 1995 graduation ceremony at Talladega High School, where Ms. Doe's daughter is a student.

'Pervades the School Day'

The bulk of the lawsuit, however, challenges practices in the DeKalb County district, where "organized religion just pervades the school day," Steven Green, Mr. Chandler's lawyer with Americans United, maintained.

"Any chance there is for religion at a school-sponsored event, it seems to occur" in the district, he said in an interview.

For example, Mr. Chandler contends that his son's 6th-grade teacher last year solicited students to pray at the front of the class or to read from the Bible.

Prayers at high school football games and graduation ceremonies are commonplace, the suit alleges, and they are led not just by students but also by clergy members.

The suit also cites a compulsory 1994 ceremony for a drug-education program during which, it says, an elementary school student read from the Bible and a similar ceremony at Valley Head High School where a minister was invited to lead prayers. Prayers are a regular part of 4-H meetings, pep rallies, and other student assemblies, the suit contends.

The suit also alleges that in-school distribution of Bibles by Gideons International occurs frequently in the DeKalb district.

Mr. Chandler contends in the suit that when he objected to prayers in his son's classroom, Superintendent Weldon Parrish told him that "prayer in schools did not hurt anything and might do some good."

Mr. Parrish said late last week that he had not seen the suit and could not comment on specific incidents.

"Our policy here is that our schools are in compliance with state and federal rules and regulations," the superintendent said. The district is not doing anything that was not authorized by the 1993 state law, he said.

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