Law & Courts

Judge Defines Church-State Rules for Ala.

By Mark Walsh — November 05, 1997 4 min read

A federal judge issued a sweeping injunction last week prohibiting many long-standing religious practices in Alabama public schools, including prayers in class or over the intercom, graduation prayers, religious assemblies, and distribution of Bibles to students.

U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent of Montgomery, Ala., also ordered the school district at the center of the lawsuit to provide in-service training to its staff members about the dictates of the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against government establishment of religion.

The training must cover “the general issue of school officials’ tolerance for diversity in religious opinion and duty of neutrality in matters of religion,” the judge said in his Oct. 29 order.

Judge DeMent also said he would appoint a monitor to check that the DeKalb County school district in northwest Alabama was complying with the injunction.

“This is a reminder that the [U.S.] Constitution still rules in Alabama,” said Steven Green, a lawyer with Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The Washington-based advocacy group helped represent Michael Chandler, an assistant principal in DeKalb County who charged in a lawsuit last year that district officials allowed religious practices throughout the county’s schools that were clearly unconstitutional. (“Without a Prayer,” Oct. 30, 1996.)

Mr. Chandler said last week that some schools in the county continued this year to have prayers at graduation or at football games.

Judge DeMent “is basically stating what the law is,” Mr. Chandler said. “They need someone here to monitor, and the teachers need some in-service training.”

State Law Blocked

Judge DeMent’s injunction also barred Gov. Fob James Jr. and other state officials from enforcing a 1993 state law authorizing voluntary student prayers in public schools. The judge had ruled the law unconstitutional in a separate ruling in the case last March.

The injunction comes amid an intense debate in Alabama over religious expression in the public schools and in other government places. It also comes as Congress is debating whether to amend the U.S. Constitution to guarantee greater religious expression by students and others. A House subcommittee approved such an amendment last week.

Earlier this year, Gov. James said he would call out the National Guard to block a court order demanding that a state judge remove a homemade carving of the Ten Commandments from his courtroom. The battle over the religious plaque has drawn nationwide attention. The U.S. House passed a resolution in March supporting Etowah County Judge Roy S. Moore’s display of the commandments.

Meanwhile, in June, Mr. James wrote a letter to Judge DeMent urging him to reconsider his decision striking down the voluntary-student-prayer law.

The Republican governor’s 34-page letter said the U.S. Supreme Court had gone too far in limiting religious expression in schools and the public square. He also argued that the high court has no authority to apply the First Amendment to the states.

Judge DeMent responded in late July with a three-page memorandum that said “the governor’s invitation to ignore the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the 14th Amendment ... poses a serious threat to our system of democratic self-government.” The 14th Amendment, through the interpretation of the Supreme Court, has made the Bill of Rights applicable to the states.

Common Practice

Eric Johnston, a special counsel to Gov. James on the school prayer lawsuit, said last week’s injunction would chill student religious expression that is constitutional.

“The order is so stridently worded toward school officials that it is going to make them afraid to allow anything,” Mr. Johnston said. “You would think there had been such egregious religious activity in DeKalb County that the judge is punishing them. But DeKalb was just doing what most districts were doing in Alabama.”

Which was exactly the problem, Mr. Chandler’s lawsuit contended. District officials allowed prayers at graduation and at the start of football games. They allowed representatives of Gideons International to distribute Bibles to students on school grounds. There were occasional religious-themed student assemblies and instances of students reciting prayers in class, the suit alleged.

Judge DeMent’s order bars all of those activities. But the judge appeared to emphasize that students still have the right to pray silently, to wear religious symbols, and to express their own religious beliefs in homework and artwork. The order also says schools may use religious texts for educational purposes “in an objective and academic manner.”

The judge barred all organized prayers at graduation, whether by students, clergy, or school staff members. But the injunction does not prohibit “a brief personal expression by a student which contains religious references during a commencement exercise or student address (for example, a student may express thanks to Deity for his or her academic success).” School officials cannot encourage such acts, and they cannot invite audience response, the judge said.

District Reaction

Richard Land, the superintendent of the 7,000-student DeKalb County district, released a statement that said the judge “has outlined a very specific road map” for state and local school officials to follow. But the school board will decide what to do next, he added.

Donald B. Sweeney Jr., a lawyer representing the DeKalb district, praised the judge’s order.

“Judge DeMent has taken a confused and confusingly complex subject, and created for school officials a bright line that demarcates what and how students and school employees can exercise freedom of religion,” he said in a written release.

Mr. Johnston, the governor’s lawyer, said Mr. Sweeney was too willing “to turn the other cheek” and give up the fight to allow greater religious expression in the schools.

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