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U.S. Judge Rejects Intercom Prayers in Miss.

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A federal judge last week struck down student-led prayer over the school intercom and several other religious practices in the Pontotoc County, Miss., school district.

The ruling was a victory for Lisa Herdahl, the woman who challenged longstanding religious activities at the Ecru, Miss., public school that five of her six children attend.

Ms. Herdahl, who moved her family from Wisconsin to the Mississippi community three years ago, has been ostracized by residents and elected officials for her legal challenge. Her lawsuit was backed by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Washington-based advocacy organization People for the American Way.

The district's challenged practices cannot be upheld simply because they are favored by most community residents, U.S. District Judge Neal B. Biggers Jr. of Oxford, Miss., said in his June 3 ruling. "To say that the majority should prevail simply because of its numbers is to forget the purpose of the Bill of Rights," he said in the 39-page opinion.

In a case that has attracted nationwide attention, Ms. Herdahl challenged several religious practices at the K-12 North Pontotoc Attendance Center, including morning prayers read over the school intercom by students, group prayers and the showing of religious videotapes in some classrooms, before-school prayer meetings in the gym, and Bible classes taught to public school children by local ministers for the past 50 years.

Judge Biggers issued a preliminary ruling last year that halted the intercom prayers and found most of the practices likely to be in violation of the U.S. Constitution's prohibition of government establishment of religion. (See Education Week, April 26, 1995.)

One Practice Upheld

The judge held a weeklong trial in March to gather evidence about the challenged practices, and his final order struck down all but one.

He rejected arguments that the intercom prayers were an expression of free speech by the students in a religion club who delivered them. Other clubs were restricted to making short announcements about their activities, while the religion club was allowed to read prayers, he noted.

The voluntary Bible classes are taught on school property, but a committee of local clergy finds volunteers to teach the classes. The judge said that it would not be unconstitutional to teach about the Bible in public schools but that the Pontotoc County classes clearly have been "overtly religious."

The judge upheld the school's practice of voluntary before-school devotionals in the gym. Ms. Herdahl challenged those only for students in grades K-6 because of their age.

But the judge said the devotionals could be upheld because the district required parental consent for younger children to attend.

"Through parental consent, the elementary children are on an equal footing with secondary school students, who the Supreme Court has held are mature enough to differentiate between [school] sponsorship and mere custodial oversight," he said.

Jerry Horton, the superintendent of the 2,700-student district, said the ruling will allow the continuation of Bible classes if they are altered to provide a secular approach to Bible history.

The district's lawyers are examining other parts of the ruling for a possible appeal, he said.

"On intercom prayer, we have always believed that that was more of a free-speech issue than a religious issue," he said.

Ms. Herdahl, in a statement released by the ACLU, said: "Parents and kids should be able to decide for themselves if they want to go to Sunday school. They shouldn't have to battle that out in court."

The issue of school prayer is also in the spotlight in Florida, where Gov. Lawton Chiles has vetoed a bill that would have allowed student-led prayer at school events. (See story, page 14.)

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