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Without A Prayer

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A federal judge has ruled that the Pontotoc County, Miss., public schools violated the U.S. Constitution by allowing students to recite prayers over a school intercom.

The ruling was a victory for Lisa Herdahl, the woman who filed suit to block that and several other religious activities at the Ecru, Miss., public school that five of her six children attend. Since initiating the case, Herdahl, who moved her family from Wisconsin to the Mississippi community three years ago, has been ostracized by area residents and officials.

Her lawsuit, which has attracted national attention, was backed by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Washington-based advocacy organization People for the American Way. It challenged several religious practices at the K-12 North Pontotoc Attendance Center, including morning prayers read over the school intercom by students, the showing of religious videotapes in some classrooms, before-school prayer meetings in the gym, and Bible classes taught by local ministers.

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

Biggers rejected the district's argument that the intercom prayers were an expression of free speech by members of the school's religion club. Other clubs were restricted to making short announcements about their activities, he said, while the religion club was allowed to read prayers. On the question of Bible classes, the judge said it would be constitutional to teach about the Bible in the public school but that the Pontotoc County classes clearly have been "overtly religious.''

Judge Biggers did, however, uphold the school's practice of voluntary before-school devotionals. Herdahl had challenged that practice only for students in grades K-6 because of their young age. The judge upheld the practice because the district required parental consent for younger children to attend the sessions. "Through parental consent,'' he wrote, "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.''

Jerry Horton, superintendent of the 2,700-student district, said lawyers are examining the ruling for a possible appeal. "On intercom prayer,'' he said, "we have always believed that that was more of a free-speech issue than a religious issue.''

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.''

--Mark Walsh

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