Case Challenging Daily Prayers at Miss. School Goes to Trial

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The case of Lisa Herdahl, the Wisconsin transplant who challenged a tradition of intercom prayers and other religious activity in a Mississippi school district, went to trial last week in federal court.

Ms. Herdahl and her children are challenging longstanding practices in the 2,600-student Pontotoc County district, including prayers read by students over the public-address system and religion classes subsidized by local churches.

Ms. Herdahl, who moved to Ecru, Miss., in 1993, argues that organized prayers do not belong in the public schools. Her lawsuit challenges prayers at the North Pontotoc Attendance Center, where five of her six children attended school.

The district contends that the prayers are not an unconstitutional government establishment of religion because they are initiated by students.

U.S. District Judge Neal B. Biggers Jr. presided over the three-day trial last week. Last April, Judge Biggers issued a preliminary injunction that temporarily barred the intercom prayers. (See Education Week, April 26, 1995.)

"My kids and I have been harassed for standing up for our religious freedom," Ms. Herdahl said in a statement before the trial began March 4. "I don't believe that any students should be forced to choose between going along with some official prayer or having to stand out and be ostracized."

The American Civil Liberties Union and the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way are backing the suit.

The judge is expected to take several weeks to issue a ruling.

A 13-year-old Indiana boy who challenged a school district's ban on earrings for boys has lost his case.

The Indiana Supreme Court voted 3-2 late last month not to intervene in the case of Jimmy Hines Jr., who with his parents challenged the Caston district's male-earring ban.

The state high court acted after hearing arguments in the case earlier last month. The court's decision not to rule on the merits of the case leaves intact a state appellate court ruling upholding the ban.

Caston, a rural district of 786 students in north-central Indiana, adopted the ban for high school and middle school boys after a board member heard in 1985 that gang members often wore earrings.

Jimmy Hines began wearing an earring to school in 1991, when he was in the 4th grade. He reportedly wore the earring because his father wore one.

The boy stopped wearing his earring to school after he was suspended. When he faced a forced transfer to a school that didn't have such a ban, the Hines family challenged the policy in a state lawsuit.

The family argued that the policy violated the boy's 14th Amendment rights to due process of law and equal protection of the law.

The due-process argument maintained that the earring ban denied Jimmy Hines' right to control his personal appearance. The equal-protection argument was based on the fact that the ban applied to boys and not to girls.

A state trial court and an appellate court rejected both arguments.

In its decision last June, the appeals court ruled 2-1 that the school district policy was rationally related to fostering good student attitudes in school and that under community dress standards, earrings "are considered female attire."

"It is not the business of the courts to determine community standards or to become arbiters of acceptable fashion in the public schools," the majority said in Hines v. Caston School Corporation.

A spokeswoman for the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, which represented the Hines family in the case, said it was not unusual for the state supreme court to hear oral arguments in a case and then decide not to rule on the merits.

The ICLU was considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, said Sheila Kennedy, the group's spokeswoman.

A group of African-American residents of the Fort Wayne, Ind., school district had no constitutional right to have black applicants considered for the superintendent's position, a federal appeals court has ruled.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit last month upheld a ruling that dismissed a lawsuit challenging the school board's alleged failure to consider black candidates during a 1994 superintendent search. The 32,000-student district's board selected a white candidate, Thomas Fowler-Finn, over another white finalist.

Five black residents, including a City Council member, filed the suit alleging that the school board refused to consider African-American candidates and "conducted the business of [the] school system in a way to discourage and undermine" potential black candidates.

The plaintiffs later added black schoolchildren to the suit, alleging that the board's actions made black children feel "demotivated" and "discouraged."

A federal district court dismissed the suit for failing to state a valid federal constitutional claim. The 7th Circuit court upheld the dismissal in its Feb. 16 ruling in Clay v. Fort Wayne Community Schools.

"No doubt [the plaintiffs], as well as the rest of society, have a strong interest in thwarting discrimination," said the ruling by U.S. Circuit Judge Jesse E. Eshbach. "But there is a difference between a political or social interest and a constitutional right."

--Mark Walsh

Vol. 15, Issue 25

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