Jewish Parents Sue Alabama School System For Persecuting Their Children

Jewish Parents Sue Alabama School System For Persecuting Their Children

Thursday, August 14, 1997

MONTGOMERY, AL -- The Jewish parents of four public school students have sued an Alabama school system for violating their children's religious freedom, citing dozens of incidents when students, teachers and school officials persecuted their children for being Jews.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, which represents the family, argues that the Pike County School Board and administrators violated the constitutional right of the students to freely excercise their religion. In addition, the lawsuit says the district failed to stop theharassment, intimidation and threats to the students because of their religion and violated the constitutional prohibition against government endorsement of religion.

The lawsuit, filed August 4th in U. S. District Court for the Middle District in Alabama, was brought on behalf of the children of Sue and Wayne Willis of Pike County. Mr. and Mrs. Willis are Jewish and are raising their children in the Jewish faith.

The Willis children attend Pike County Elementary and Pike County High School. Over the last several years, the lawsuit says, their religious faith has been denigrated repeatedly by teachers, administrators and students. They have been denied the right to practice their faith while other students freely practice theirs. They have been denied the right to express their religious beliefs while repeatedly being forced to participate in overtly Christian assemblies and classroom activities.

The lawsuit further charges that the Willis children have also been the victims of religious bigotry and anti-Semitic hate crimes at the hands of other students. Faculty, adminstrators and school board members have done nothing to stop this persecution.

Mr. and Mrs. Willis have taken their concerns and complaints to all levels of school personnel and the school board during the last few years. Their efforts have been in vain. In response to a complaint from Mrs. Willis in April of this year, Superintendent John Key suggested that the continual harassment would end if the Willis family would convert to Christianity.

One teacher, in response to Mrs. Willis' plea, explained "If parents will not save souls, we have to."

The following are examples of the religious persecution suffered by the Willis children and the entanglement of the Pike County school system with religion. Included in the lawsuit are:

--The Willis children were forbidden to wear Star of David lapel pins. The teacher claimed the Star of David was a gang symbol. Other children in class were wearing crosses.

--The Willis children were forbidden to participate in physical education class while wearing their yarmulkes.

--Two of the Willis children have been physically assaulted by their classmates because of their religion. On one occasion one of the children was beaten by five or six other students.

--Swastikas have been drawn on their lockers, bookbags and jackets. Their yarmulkes, worn on High Holy Days, have been ripped off their heads and used to play "keep away."

--The children are constantly taunted with jeers such as "Jew boys" and "Jewish jokers." These verbal assaults are particularly venomous after blatantly Christian assemblies. Teachers and administrators have done nothing meaningful to stop these acts of cruelty and threats to physically safety, although they have repeatedly been made aware of them.

--The Willis children were ordered by teachers to bow their heads during Christian prayers, even though the teachers knew the children were Jewish . On at least one occasion a teacher physically forced one of the children to bow his head during the delivery of a prayer in an assembly. The prayer was explicitly Christian. The teacher knew the child was Jewish.

--A vice principal disciplined one Willis child for disrupting class by requring him to compose an essay on the subject "Why Jesus Loves Me."

--One Willis child was sent to wait in the hall during the distribution of Gideon bibles. Classmates called the child names as she left the room. A Gideon representative tried to force the child to take a copy of the Gideon bible and held a cross in front of her face when she explained she did not want one because she was Jewish. The child ran screaming back into the classroom, asking her teacher for help. The teacher did nothing.

--Religious, overtly Christian, classroom activities and assembly presentations are common in the Pike County system. Events like "Birth of Jesus" plays at assembly and "Happy Birthday Jesus" parties in classrooms make the Willis children feel like second-class citizens.

--One local minister, brought in to make a presentation at a school assembly, told the students that anyone who had not accepted Jesus as his or her Savior was doomed to hell. The Willis child in the audience left to jeers from her classmates. She suffered nightmares for weeks.

"These harmful and hateful acts are the product of a culture of religious bigotry which permeates the Pike County school system," said ACLU Of Alabama cooperating attorney Pamela Sumners. "They have been perpetrated or tacitly endorsed by the very officials who are duty-bound to operate our schools in a manner which comports with the Constitution and morally bound to operate the schools so that all children are treated equally and with respect."

As Mrs. Willis explained in papers filed with the court, "Every day that I send my children to Pike County schools, I wonder if I am sending them in to a war zone. Every day that I send my children to Pike County schools, I feel that the environment threatens every value that my husband and I have tried to teach them at home. I have asked school officials how I can teach my children to be tolerant human beings and not bigots when they are subjected to outright religious persecution and bigotry in school."

The Willis family asked the court to declare that school officials must recognize their right to freely exercise their religion and that school officials have a duty to protect students from harassment and threats based on religious animus. They have also asked the court to preliminarily and permanently enjoin the defendants from creating an establishment of religion.

The case is Paul Michael Herring v. Dr. John Key, Superintendent of Pike County Schools.

September 3, 1997: Alabama Kids Persecuted for Being Jewish

TROY, AL -- As the only Jewish students in the rural Pike County public schools, the Herring children say they have learned a great deal about religion -- the fundamentalist Christian variety.

The Washington Post reports that when Paul Herring, 14, was sent to the school office to be disciplined for the disrupting class, he was ordered by the vice principal to write an essay on "Why Jesus Loves Me." When David Herring, 13, failed to bow his head during a school prayer ceremony, a teacher allegedly reached over and lowered it for him.

The children's parents, Sue and Wayne Willis, said they have complained frequently about the activities, only to be dismissed as troublemakers and to be told, "This is how we do things in Alabama."

"Every day that I send my children to Pike County schools, I wonder if I am sending them into a war zone," said Sue Willis, 35, the mother of four school children, in an interview with the Post.

Recently, with the help of the ACLU of Alabama, the parents filed suit in U.S. District Court against the school system for violating their children's religious freedom and persecuting them for being Jewish. The suit asks that the religious practices and persecution be stopped at once, but does not ask for any monetary damages.

ACLU officials told the Post that this is not just the story of one family's ordeal, but is representative of a pattern of institutional intolerance in Alabama toward anyone who is not Christian -- and a continued flouting of the separation of church and state.

They added that the attitude filters down from Gov. Fob James (R), who has supported a circuit judge's right to display the Ten Commandments and open his court with Christian prayer, and a state legislature that has passed school prayer statutes four times in recent years.

It also indicates, according to the ACLU, a national trend of religious practices creeping into public schools, citing Gideon Bible distributions and turn toward "student-initiated" prayer during school assemblies. "I would hate for folks to have the impression that we don't have progressive, open-minded people in the state of Alabama," Pamela Sumners, an ACLU attorney handling the case, told the Post. "But these things, in terms of the explicitly Christian prayer at student assemblies and at school events, are very typical throughout the state."

The most recent school prayer statute, passed by the state legislature in 1993, was struck down as unconstitutional earlier this year after the ACLU challenged it in federal court.

But, Sumners added, "the governor has said that he will appeal that case all the way to the United States Supreme Court, not on the basis of constitutionality, but on the theory that federal courts do not have jurisdiction over the First Amendment."

Source: The Washington Post, September 2, 1997

April 28, 1998
Jewish Students Protected Under Settlement in Alabama

BIRMINGHAM, AL -- A lawyer for the only Jewish students in Pike County's public schools says the children will be protected from future religious harassment under a court settlement, according to the Associated Press.

Officials in the southeast Alabama school system said they had settled a lawsuit filed by Wayne and Sue Willis over alleged mistreatment and discrimination against their children by teachers and other students.

Pamela Sumners, cooperating attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, told AP that the settlement was "tailored" to protect the children from harassment.

School officials are required to intervene if they learn that any of the Willis children are being harassed on school property. A copy of the settlement barring discrimination must be posted in each Pike County school, and copies must be made available to faculty members.

Also, the county must report any violations of the order to the court. "We're very pleased to reach an amicable settlement so the children and parents can go on with their lives and the schools can go on educating students," Sumners told the wire service.

The family, which did not ask for any money and will not receive any, claimed in a suit filed last year that their children were teased, mocked and proselytized by Christians while attending classes in Pike County, where the youngsters were the only Jewish students.

School officials in interviews admitted many of the suits key allegations, including claims one of the Willis boys was forced to bow his head during a Christian prayer and was told to write a paper on "Why Jesus Loves Me."

The 13-page settlement follows many of the same guidelines laid out in a decision by U.S. District Judge Ira Dement, who ruled in a case last year in Dekalb County, Ala., that public schools could not promote religion.

Source: Associated Press, April 22, 1998

Go Back to Shy David's American Civil Liberties Union Page.