ACLU Seeks Supreme Court Review of Ruling in Alabama School Prayer Case

Affiliate: ACLU of Alabama
December 3, 1999 12:00 am

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MONTGOMERY, AL — Acting on behalf of a former school principal and his son, the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama and Americans United for Separation of Church and State have asked the United States Supreme Court to overturn portions of a lower court ruling that allow evangelists and others to lead schoolchildren in prayer.

Michael Chandler and his son Jesse are challenging portions of a ruling by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals allowing group prayer and devotionals led by students and others — including evangelists — in public school classrooms, over intercoms and public-address systems, at mandatory school assemblies, and at graduations and sporting events.

The ruling, directed at the public schools of DeKalb County, sets precedent for schools in Alabama, Georgia and Florida. The decision is the first ever to hold that non-school personnel — such as clergy — have a constitutional right to lead K-12 schoolchildren in public prayer. It is also the first such court to treat school settings the same as public parks, even though the audience can avoid the speaker’s message in a public park and a student cannot realistically leave the classroom.

The case arose in 1996, when Michael Chandler, formerly a vice principal in DeKalb County schools, and his son Jesse, then a seventh grader, challenged school officials’ promotion of religion in the classroom and at official school events.

School officials claimed that their promotion of religion in the public schools was legal under Alabama’s school-prayer statute, the fourth such statute Alabama had enacted in a 15-year period. The statute provided that school officials “shall permit” prayer led by students at school-sponsored events. United States District Judge Ira De Ment ruled the statute was an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

Despite Judge De Ment’s ruling, DeKalb County school officials continued to sponsor prayer in the classroom, prayer at mandatory assemblies, and prayer at graduations and over the public-address system at sporting events.

After nearly two years of litigation, the Chandlers won an injunction barring school-sponsored or officially sanctioned prayers and devotionals. In order to make sure that DeKalb County school officials did not inadvertently trample students’ religious rights in the process of ending school endorsement of religion, the injunction expressly stated it did not prevent private prayer, wearing of religious clothing and symbols, distribution of religious literature, and attempts by students to persuade their schoolmates on religious matters during their free time.

The Eleventh Circuit, however, vacated Judge De Ment’s injunction and directed school officials to permit prayer and devotional activities even where students are compelled to attend, including in the classrooms. The ruling allows any person who is not a school official to lead group prayer before captive audiences of K-12 schoolchildren, even though some students or their parents would object to this state sponsorship of religion.

In their legal brief before the court, the groups said that Judge De Ment’s ruling recognized the difference between private speech and speech that uses the machinery of the state to promote religion. His ruling preserved the line between students’ religious rights on their own time, such as saying a private grace before meals or handing out a youth group flier before class, and using the state-provided microphone and state-provided audience to deliver prayers.

“There is nothing private about a prayer over a public-address system, and when that public-address system belongs to the state, the state runs the risk that the prayer is identified as the state’s message,” said ACLU cooperating attorney Pamela Sumners. “In DeKalb County, there is no question that the prayers were school-sponsored; school officials even set aside special time for invocations and benedictions at school events,” she added.

The Chandlers are asking the High Court to enforce 40 years of precedents holding that schoolchildren cannot be compelled to participate in prayers and devotional exercises in public school. They have also asked the Court to examine the Eleventh Circuit’s treatment of public schools like public parks, where any speaker may freely speak his mind. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that schools are not public forums. In addition, the Chandlers have asked the Court to examine Judge De Ment’s injunction based on some 15 volumes of facts in the case.

“Public schools are not Sunday schools,” said Barry W. Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “I am confident the Supreme Court will take this case and put an end to these kinds of abuses.”

The Supreme Court can choose whether to hear the case. While the Court deliberates on the issue, the Eleventh Circuit’s decision is stayed, leaving Judge De Ment’s injunction the law until the Supreme Court acts on the petition.

The Supreme Court has already indicated it will hear a Texas case involving student-led prayer over the school-owned public-address system before football games. The ACLU of Texas is representing the parents in that case, Doe v. Santa Fe.

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