For years, schoolchildren in at least one rural Mississippi county have been reciting Bible verses and Christian prayers over the school intercom at the close of morning announcements.
The school district there has also sanctioned pre-lunch blessings, the distribution of Gideon Bibles, and a Bible class a part of the official school curriculum.
Now, a federal court is weighing whether the practices are constitutional.
Last year, a U.S. District Court issued a preliminary injunction ordering the school to end the intercom and classroom prayers, rejecting the argument that the prayers were “student-initiated” and therefore constitutional.
The case, which has drawn attention to religious activities in rural American schools, could have broad implications for religious liberty and school prayer issues.
The case is back in the courts, but a decision is not expected for several months.
“Sadly, this is not an isolated thing,” said Samuel Rabinove, legal director of the American Jewish Committee. “In most cases parents are afraid to speak out, but in rural communities, especially in the South, the prevailing ethos has been to make the public school almost a de facto Southern Baptist parochial school, and this is very disturbing.”
He added, “The few people who are not Southern Baptists go along because they pay too much of a penalty socially if they challenge what’s going on.”
Lisa Herdahl and her family know that penalty well.
When Herdahl, a Lutheran with five children now in Mississippi’s Pontotoc County School District, objected to the school’s religious practices, she and her children were vilified by the community.
Undeterred and backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way, Herdahl filed suit against the school district last year.
“My children have been ridiculed and harassed by teachers and classmates, and falsely called `devil worshipers’ and `atheists,'” Herdahl said in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September at a hearing on religious liberty.
The family, which moved to Ecru, Miss., from Wisconsin in 1993, also received a death threat in the mail, as well as bomb threats.
“Religion is something that my children learn at home and in church, and I did not and do not want the public schools telling them when and how to pray,” Herdahl said in her testimony. She maintains that the school teachers religion from a Baptist and Methodist perspective.
In an open letter of support for Herdahl, more than 150 religious leaders, including rabbis, from across the country stated, “It is unacceptable that three decades after the Supreme Court plainly indicated that state-sponsored prayer in the classroom is unconstitutional, this family must fight this battle all over again.”
U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers heard closing arguments last week in the case, Herdahl vs. Pontotoc County School District, from school lawyers, who defended the prayers and Bible classes.
The judge will rule on the constitutionality of the classroom prayers and blessings, the church-sponsored Bible class, as well as the school’s practice of conducting voluntary religious services in the gymnasium.
Legal scholars say the case is fairly clear-cut.
The school’s religious practices are “pretty plainly prohibited” by the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits Congress from making laws “respecting an establishment of religion,” said Marc Stern, co- director of the legal department of the American Jewish Congress.
What is more troubling, Stern said, is the pervasiveness of similar religious activities in rural American schools.
Although such practice remain uncommon in most of the country, he said, “there are small pockets, mostly in religiously homogenous communities and small towns” where prayer in school in standard.
“You wouldn’t find it in cities like Houston or Dallas,” he said, “but go 100 miles out and you may find it quite a lot.”
Jews, he added, rarely become caught up in such situations “because there, almost by definition, are no Jews in these areas.”
As proponents of church-state separation watch the outcome of the Mississippi case, conservative state legislatures throughout the South have been moving in recent years to pass laws sanctioning various forms of school prayer.
Last month, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a 1993 Mississippi law that allowed student-led prayer in public schools. It is possible that the appeal court’s ruling could be cited in the Herdahl case.
Alabama also passed a sweeping school prayer law in 1993 that now faces a court challenge. One of the plaintiffs in that case requested anonymity, fearing community reprisals.
Southern lawmakers determined to promote religious views in schools have not stopped at prayer. Similar legislative efforts have sought to pave the way for teaching creationism in schools.
The Tennessee state Legislature, which last month approved a resolution urging people to post and observe the Ten Commandments, is now considering a bill that would permit school boards to dismiss teachers who teach evolution theory as fact rather than theory.
Similar efforts calling for schools to teach creationism along with evolution, prompted by the rise of the Christian right, have been launched in Georgia and Alabama.
“Almost all of this isn’t even enough to give a constitutional lawyer a sweat,” Stern said. “It’s just in-your-face sort of legislation, and what’s troublesome is that there’s apparently a political climate in these places that encourages really primitive lawmaking and a general attitude of defiance toward the courts.”
The lawmakers, he added, do not appear particularly concerned with issues of constitutionality.
“It’s sort of a scattered-shot approach,” Stern said, with lawmakers figuring “we’ll throw everything at the courts and maybe something will survive.”