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Without a Prayer

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Over the years, neither the DeKalb County school board nor the superintendent even acknowledged his complaints.

The ACLU did not jump to file a lawsuit in 1989 when Chandler first complained. Instead, the civil rights organization told him to document any constitutional violations by writing down the facts or making videotapes when possible.

Still, the ACLU took him more seriously than local school officials. Over the years, Chandler says, neither the DeKalb County school board nor the superintendent even acknowledged his complaints. Their attitude, he believes, is best reflected in the school system's defiant response to the 1989 federal appeals court ruling on pre-game prayers. In the case of Jager v. Douglas County School District, the 11th Circuit court held that prayers delivered by ministers or by others selected at random violated the First Amendment's prohibition against government establishment of religion.

The case--filed by the family of a band member at a Georgia high school--garnered even more attention when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the appeals court's decision later that year. The Supreme Court's action was not a ruling on the merits of the case and did not mean that the 11th Circuit court's ruling was binding nationwide. But it was binding in Alabama, which lies in the same federal court circuit as Georgia.

After the decision, some DeKalb County school officials maintained that their tradition of pre-game prayers would continue. "I don't agree with the decision, and we will continue to have them," Sammy Clanton, who was then the principal of Collinsville High School, told the Fort Payne Times-Journal.

The principal of Plainview School had this to say: "We will continue to have devotionals unless there is opposition. The school reflects the attitude of the community, and in this community, it is accepted."

In the summer of 1989, shortly before the football season was about to get started, Weldon Parrish, the new superintendent of schools, was asked whether the 11th Circuit ruling would snuff out pre-game prayers. He told the local paper that unless the state school board issued a directive to the contrary, it would be up to local principals to decide whether to continue such invocations. "In my opinion, if they want to have prayer, they can have it," Parrish reportedly said. "It is tradition."

Parrish is now about to wrap up his two four-year terms of service as superintendent. He's not running for re-election. The race to succeed Parrish is between Claude "Butch" Cassidy, the principal of Crossville High School, and Richard Land, a school system administrator whose campaign slogan promises "Basics and Beyond." Local observers say Cassidy, the Democrat in this heavily Democratic bastion, is the favorite. The prayer issue has not been a major campaign topic.

When the prayer suit was first filed, the superintendent denied any unconstitutional practices were being observed.

Parrish declined to comment about Chandler's lawsuits. When the prayer suit was first filed, the superintendent denied any unconstitutional practices were being observed in DeKalb County schools. "Our policy here is that our schools are in compliance with state and federal rules and regulations," he said at the time.

But Parrish and other officials have responded to some of Chandler's allegations in court papers. School administrators admit, for example, that an outside inspirational speaker did address Valley Head High students last fall. But they deny that his speech was religious, as the lawsuit asserts.

The defendants argue that meetings of the Fellowship of Christian Students take place before the school day and not, as the lawsuit asserts, during school hours when no other student clubs are allowed to meet. And they deny that the county extension agent selects devotionals for the students to read during 4-H meetings.

School officials do acknowledge in court papers that football game and commencement prayers have taken place. And they admit that one of Jesse Chandler's teachers at Fyffe High asked for volunteers to lead prayers and read aloud from the Bible. But the superintendent does not recall any complaint from Michael Chandler about the practice, the district's court papers say. When Parrish learned about the practice from a newspaper article, he says he told the teacher to stop such classroom religious practices.

In regard to Chandler's job-discrimination lawsuit, the school board's response was terse. "Defendants neither admit nor deny that plaintiff has made his beliefs known regarding religious freedom and demand strict proof thereof," the board states in court papers. "Defendants admit that plaintiff has applied" for principal's openings but "deny that less qualified people have been appointed."

Valley Head Principal Gary Talley landed the job that Chandler sought two years ago. As Chandler's boss, he now finds himself working alongside the man who has filed suit against the school system. In fact, Talley is named in court papers as the person responsible for allowing certain religious practices--such as having an outside assembly speaker deliver what was ultimately a Christian message to students--to go on at the school.

But Talley is relaxed and gracious as he describes how he gets along with Chandler. "I work very well with Mike," he says. "Personally, an individual's beliefs are his own business."

"I don't think anyone's religion should be forced on anyone else. But sometimes, we have to look at the best interest of our kids."

Gary Talley, Valley Head Principal

As to the larger question of religious practices in school, Talley adds: "I believe in the separation of church and state. I don't think anyone's religion should be forced on anyone else. But sometimes, as adults, we have to look at the best interest of our kids. Morals and values are slowly going downhill, and school may be the only place kids get values."

Some Valley Head teachers privately say they think Chandler and his lawsuit are making too much out of a few isolated incidents. Religious practices, they suggest, aren't nearly as regular or serious as Chandler paints them, especially not at Valley Head High.

And Valley Head students seem to agree. Tenth grader Teri Campbell says she respects Chandler but, like her classmates, thinks it's no big deal to let students pray before football games. "I feel he is standing up for what he believes," she says. "But most everyone here is a Christian, and I think most people would rather be allowed to pray."

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