Without a Prayer

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Interstate 59 virtually splits DeKalb County in half.

Interstate 59--which runs between Birmingham and Knoxville, Tenn.--virtually splits DeKalb County in half. This is Appalachian country. Sand Mountain stands to the west. Lookout Mountain to the east. About 55,000 people live in the county, mostly in or around one of its dozen small towns. Almost all the residents, about 97 percent, are white.

The county seat and largest city is Fort Payne, which, according to the sign on the way into town, is "The Sock Capital of the World." It's home to several big hosiery factories, as well as a rather large museum devoted to the country-music band Alabama, which traces its roots here.

If Fort Payne's quaint downtown strikes visitors as New England-like, that may be because of the town's brief mineral boom of the 1890s. Investors from the Northeast poured millions of dollars into mining companies in the belief that the surrounding mountains were as rich in coal and iron ore as those around Birmingham. The three-year boom led to the construction of banks and offices, railroad lines, and a luxury hotel. But with time, it became obvious that the quality and quantity of area minerals had been exaggerated, and the boom died out. DeKalb County was destined to remain a predominantly rural community.

Although the DeKalb County school system has its headquarters in Fort Payne, the city schools have not been part of the county system since 1957. The county system includes 13 schools and serves 7,300 students. Most of the schools enroll students in kindergarten through 12th grade, and most are small. Each school is identified with one of the county's small towns, and people in those communities like it that way.

Today, a small black community and a growing number of Hispanic residents have laid down roots in the county, but there are few religious minorities. Chandler recalls having one Hindu and one Jewish student in his school in recent years.

Still, at the press conference announcing his lawsuit filed in federal district court in Montgomery, the state capital, religious leaders from around the state stood by Chandler's side. They echoed the thoughts of the ACLU and Americans United about the importance of observing the wall between church and state. Fowziyyah Ali of the Committee of Concerned Muslim Parents in Huntsville spoke of the United States as a "diverse, pluralistic community of people with varied religious beliefs and practices." Though Huntsville, the home of NASA rocket scientists, may be growing in religious diversity, few signs of such growth are visible 50 miles away in DeKalb County.

Maybe the county's lack of religious diversity can explain, at least in part, local curiosity about Chandler's own religious bent. People don't know much about his family's religious beliefs, and that appears to be the way Michael Chandler likes it. He denies what some people in the community whisper: that he is an atheist or an agnostic. But he politely states that his own beliefs are a personal matter.

The lawsuit "is just a constitutional issue to me," Chandler says.

The lawsuit "is just a constitutional issue to me," Chandler says. Asked if he considers himself liberal, he smiles and says, "I might say so. I don't have the same ideas as a lot of people around here. But I've discovered in the past few months that there are a lot of people who agree with me, but they don't want to take a chance at being harassed."

Chandler's wife, Barbara, who teaches at Fyffe High School, was surprised when two parents asked that their children be removed from her 1st grade classroom after word of the lawsuit spread. Other than that, Chandler says, the family hasn't had any serious problems with people in the county. But, he admits, "there have been some looks of disgust."

Some locals wonder privately whether Chandler's religious-practices lawsuit was motivated by the fact that he was passed over for the principal's job at Valley Head High two years ago. Chandler, though, is quick to point out that his complaints about religion in county schools date back more than 10 years.

However, Chandler is involved in a separate but closely intertwined lawsuit alleging job discrimination because he was not promoted. The job-bias suit alleges that Chandler has been denied a promotion to principal on several occasions, despite "outstanding evaluations," because of his complaints about religious practices in the county schools. One school board member, Chandler says, even told a Valley Head High teacher that he'd never get promoted to principal because of "this religion thing." The suit seeks back pay and other remedies allowed under the federal job-discrimination law.

According to Chandler, three principal jobs have come open in the county since 1991. "Those are positions I should have gotten because of experience," he says. "They have passed over me because I complained."

Chandler comes to the door in a polo shirt and casual slacks that make him look more like a professional golfer than a school administrator. His house, which lies just outside the town of Fyffe, sits at the end of a long driveway off an obscure back road.

In the living room, Chandler's wife is helping their 13-year-old son, Jesse, with his homework. Chandler, a native of DeKalb County, has worked in the DeKalb County school system for 25 years. "We kind of fell into teaching jobs here," he says. The school system is one of the better-paying employers in an area dominated by sock factories that pay little more than minimum wage.

Chandler started out teaching English and social studies at two other county schools. But he has spent the past 12 years at Valley Head High, where he's now the assistant principal and a guidance counselor. He says various forms of prayer have been going on in the DeKalb County schools for as long as he can remember.

"I've been trying to get something done about this since 1989," Chandler says. He pulls out a letter he wrote to the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union that year.

His first complaints, Chandler says, were about a local Bible camp that was allowed to send speakers into public school classrooms.

His first complaints to school officials, Chandler says, were about a local Bible camp that was allowed to send speakers into public school classrooms. "Anyone who didn't want to listen, such as some Jehovah's Witnesses who were in school, they let them stand in the hall for 45 minutes," Chandler says.

According to the suit, the Fellowship of Christian Students at Valley Head High has also had evangelists speak to the entire student body. Students who did not want to attend were made to go to study hall.

Chandler wrote to the school board about the local Gideons, too. They have been allowed to distribute Bibles in the DeKalb schools for the past several years.

The lawsuit also alleges that a student read a Bible passage and a teacher sang a religious song at a 1994 graduation ceremony for a drug-awareness program at Fyffe High. Chandler's son, Jesse, was in the audience. The suit goes on to charge that at 4-H club meetings held during the school day at all DeKalb County schools, students read devotionals selected by the county extension agent.

And, Chandler says, prayers and devotionals--usually broadcast over the loudspeaker--were a regular tradition at many football games and graduation ceremonies across the county.

Vol. 16, Issue 09

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