Judge in Ala. Prayer Case Defends Injunction Against District

December 10, 1997 4 min read

The federal judge in Alabama who has been condemned by the state’s governor and others for his rulings prohibiting official prayers and other religious practices in the public schools has answered some of the most persistent criticisms.

U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent of Montgomery, Ala., earlier this year struck down a state law authorizing voluntary student prayers in public schools. In late October, the judge issued an injunction against the DeKalb County school district barring several forms of religious practices that had allegedly gone on in the county’s schools for years, such as prayers at graduation and athletic events and distribution of Bibles to students. (“Judge Defines Church-State Rules for Ala.,” Nov. 5, 1997.)

The judge ordered the district’s teachers to undergo in-service training on what religious practices are constitutionally permitted in public schools. He also said he planned to appoint a monitor who would check for unconstitutional practices.

The Oct. 29 injunction led to a storm of protest throughout the state. Gov. Fob James Jr. said the injunction “cuts at the heart of all that is good in America and brings shame on our nation.”

He compared the proposed monitor to “secret police” who would report violations to the judge so teachers or students might be held in contempt or jailed.

Meanwhile, students walked out of classrooms across the state last month in support of school prayers. The state attorney general’s office has hired Jay A. Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice to help them with the appeal.

The ACLJ, a legal organization founded by the religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, frequently steps in when it believes school officials are trampling the religious rights of students.

Last month, Judge DeMent issued a 62-page “supplemental opinion and order” in the case. The opinion responds to some of the criticisms raised over his Oct. 29 injunction.

The judge, who was appointed by President Bush in 1992, said that without his 17-page injunction, it is likely the DeKalb County district “will ignore the court’s orders just as it has disobeyed the rulings of higher courts for years.”

“It is apparent to the court from the evidence, and even from recent DeKalb County filings, that unconstitutional conduct will not be willingly stopped by elected school officials,” Judge DeMent said in the Nov. 12 supplemental opinion in Chandler v. James.

School officials’ refusal to curb religious practices such as classroom and graduation prayers “suggest to the court a disregard for the rights of students and parents who might not be members of the majoritarian religion,” he said.

And finally, Judge DeMent, using capital letters for emphasis, said the injunction “DOES NOT restrict schoolchildren’s First Amendment rights--it actually protects those rights from unwarranted and unconstitutional interference from the state.”

A Florida school district can be held liable for negligence for failing to notify the parent of a junior high school student that he tried to commit suicide at school before killing himself at home, a federal appeals court has ruled.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, based in Atlanta, ruled unanimously that the Polk County, Fla., district can be held liable under a state common-law negligence claim in the 1989 suicide of Shawn Wyke.

The McLaughlin Junior High School student, who was 13 at the time, had attempted suicide twice at the school. In one incident, he tried to hang himself in a restroom, but was talked out of it by another boy. The boy told his mother, who phoned the school’s dean of students.

According to court papers, the dean responded by calling Shawn Wyke into his office and reading Bible verses to him, but did not notify his mother. The boy later committed suicide at home. (“Fla. Suit Blames School Officials in Pupil’s Suicide,” April 20, 1994.)

The boy’s mother, Carol Wyke, raised several claims in a federal lawsuit. A federal district judge dismissed a federal civil rights claim. But the state-law negligence claim was submitted to a jury, which awarded the mother $165,000 in damages from the school district.

On appeal, the 11th Circuit court upheld the dismissal of the federal civil rights claim, agreeing with numerous other federal courts that public schools have no constitutional duty to protect children from injury.

But the appeals panel also upheld the district judge’s ruling allowing the state-law claim to go to a jury.

The court cited a Florida state “school health services manual” that advised school officials to notify parents of any medical emergency involving their children.

“We do not believe (and neither did the jury) that a prudent person would have needed a crystal ball to see that Shawn needed help and that if he didn’t get it soon, he might attempt suicide again,” the court said in its Nov. 19 ruling in Wyke v. Polk County School Board.

The jury award is on hold because the appeals court asked the Florida Supreme Court to resolve an issue of state law: whether it was right that the jury was not allowed to apportion any blame for the suicide to Shawn Wyke for the purposes of figuring damages.