Appeals Court Tosses Out Ruling in Ala. Religious-Expression Case

By Mark Walsh — August 04, 1999 3 min read

A federal appeals court ruling that a school district cannot be required to police religious expression by students is the latest volley in a long-running legal battle in DeKalb County, Ala.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit unanimously threw out a federal district court injunction that barred the school district from permitting any prayers by students at graduation ceremonies, athletic events, assemblies, or over intercom systems.

The Atlanta-based appellate court ruled that U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent of Montgomery, Ala., went too far in the injunction stemming from a lawsuit that challenged numerous religious practices at the 7,000-student DeKalb County district in northeast Alabama.

“Genuinely student-initiated religious speech must be permitted,” the appeals court said.

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed in 1996 against the county schools by Michael Chandler, who was a high school vice principal in the district at the time but has since retired. Mr. Chandler charged that district officials had for years encouraged or tolerated numerous religious practices that violated the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against government establishment of religion, such as clergy-led prayers at graduation and football games.

The lawsuit also challenged a 1993 state law intended to guarantee so-called voluntary student prayer at “compulsory and noncompulsory” school events.

Judge DeMent struck down the state prayer law in 1997, and the state did not appeal that portion of the judge’s ruling.

The judge found there was a history of unconstitutional religious expression in the DeKalb County schools, and he issued a lengthy injunction barring school personnel from promoting prayers and from permitting students to lead prayers at school events. He even appointed a monitor to oversee implementation of the court order.

Then-Gov. Fob James Jr. was at the forefront of often-angry opposition to the judge’s orders in the case. Last year, Mr. James, a Republican who was defeated for re-election in November, unsuccessfully petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a ruling that Judge DeMent was acting outside his legal authority.

Exceeding Limits

The 11th Circuit appeals panel, in its July 13 ruling, held that the record showed school officials exceeded constitutional limits in encouraging student religious activity.

“For this reason, the appointment of a monitor by the district court was not an abuse of discretion,” the panel said.

But Judge DeMent went too far by making the district ensure that students did not engage in religious expression on their own.

“The Constitution does not require a complete separation of church and state such that religious expression may not be tolerated in our public institutions,” the appellate panel said.

Students in a school audience who do not agree with a student speaker’s religious expression are free “not to listen and to express their disagreement by not participating in any way,” it said.

“Accommodation of religious beliefs we do not share is ... a part of everyday life in this country,” said the panel, which sent the case back to Judge DeMent.

Advocates of student prayer hailed the appeals court’s decision.

“Judge DeMent’s ruling was overzealous,” said Stuart J. Roth, a Mobile, Ala., lawyer with the American Center for Law and Justice, which helped defend the state and school district.

“His permanent injunction could not coexist with the First Amendment,” Mr. Roth said last week. “The 11th Circuit restored the free-speech rights of DeKalb County students, even if their speech includes religious expression.”

Pamela L. Sumners, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who represents Mr. Chandler, said she was considering an appeal.

“This decision means students can pray over the intercom, pray at assemblies, and pray at graduation and pep rallies--anywhere there is a captive audience,” she said. “I think that is deeply erroneous.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 04, 1999 edition of Education Week as Appeals Court Tosses Out Ruling in Ala. Religious-Expression Case