NEW YORK (Nov. 4)
The ping-pong battle over prayer in Alabama’s public schools seems to be over for now — and the governor’s side has lost.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent let stand his preliminary ruling from earlier this year, which struck down a 1993 Alabama law that permitted student- initiated prayer.
He also issued clear guidelines of what will and won’t be allowed in Alabama public schools with regard to religion.
Among the things that are no longer allowed in Alabama schools: any form of organized prayer; distribution of Bibles to students either in the classroom or on the school bus; and scripture readings over public address systems.
The ruling is the latest development in the battles regarding school prayer in Alabama.
In August, four Jewish siblings filed a federal lawsuit against their Pike County school district, alleging that they have been harassed by school officials and students and have been forced to participate in religious activities at school.
It is not known what effect the current ruling will have on that case, which is also expected to be heard by DeMent.
In his ruling this week, DeMent wrote that the court was “trying to protect the religious rights and freedoms of students in DeKalb County public schools” and to prevent the school district from “sponsoring religious activities.”
School officials in DeKalb County, with the support of Gov. Fob James, had defied DeMent’s earlier ruling.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, some school administrators had used the 1993 law as a shield to allow officials to encourage prayer in schools.
“It was refreshing to have a judge come out so strongly about what we feel has been some very dangerous trends,” Jay Kaiman, Southeast regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a telephone interview.
Kaiman added that the ruling is “not just an opinion of what not to do but took it to the next step” of what should be done.
In the ruling, the court called for the establishment of a monitoring system to ensure that DeKalb County complies.
It also called for mandatory tolerance training for all teachers and administrators at county schools.
DeMent singled out the ADL’s World of Difference curriculum as an example of the type of tolerance programs that he would like to see DeKalb County implement.
DeMent’s ruling stems from a 1995 lawsuit filed by Michael Chandler, a vice principal in the DeKalb County school district, who opposed the schools’ involvement in prayers.
According to the ACLU, which represented Chandler, he had tried to stop the practice of prayers before sporting events.
He also tried to prevent Bibles from being handed out to students and to stop teachers from appointing students to lead prayer services.
The ADL said this ruling not only sends a message to the school system but also to the governor’s office.
The ruling “reinforces the fact that separation of church and state are held in high regard by our judicial system,” Kaiman said.
James, the governor, is a staunch supporter of prayer in public schools.
He has not yet issued a reaction to the court ruling, but a spokesman reiterated the governor’s belief that people of all religions should be allowed to pray “any way they choose, any time they choose, without government interference.”
James may appeal DeMent’s ruling.
If he does, ACLU Alabama’s president, Martin McCaffery, believes that school officials in DeKalb County will continue to be “intransigent” and violate DeMent’s rulings.