How long, oh Lord, will schools force their students to pray?

From the Opinion/Commentary section of the "Baltimore Sun" ( 2/12/98
Linda R. Monk

ONCE again, an Alabama governor is claiming that the U.S. Constitution does not apply to his state. Once again, a federal judge is trying to convince him otherwise.

Thirty years ago, the governor was George C. Wallace, the judge was Frank Johnson and the issue was the right of all students to an equal education. Today, the governor is Fob James Jr., the judge is Ira DeMent and the issue is children's spiritual freedom.

A nation watched in horror during the civil rights movement as Bull Connor, public safety commissioner of Birmingham, Ala., turned fire hoses on black children -- rolling their small bodies down the street like tumbleweeds. Unfortunately, no television cameras recorded sixth-grader David Herring as his teacher forced his head down during a Christian prayer.

David and his siblings -- Paul, Sarah and Rachel -- are the only Jewish children in Pike County, Ala. Along with their parents, they have filed suit in Judge DeMent's court, citing numerous examples of religious persecution. School officials allowed students to taunt and physically assault the Herring children. At a mandatory school assembly, a local minister condemned to hell all people who did not believe in Jesus Christ.

Paul was even forced to write an essay entitled, "Why Jesus Loves Me," as punishment. When confronted about the overtly sectarian nature of the assignment, school officials responded that the essay was about Jesus' role as a great prophet and teacher. According to the lawsuit, school staff argued that public school teachers must save children's souls if their parents do not.

'Tolerant not bigots'

Sue Willis, the Herring children's mother, stated in an affidavit: "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 Herring case is still pending.

Judge DeMent's ruling in another school prayer case last year caused the governor to declare that the Bill of Rights does not apply to the state of Alabama.

The judge, a Republican appointee who keeps a Bible on his desk, declared unconstitutional a 1993 Alabama law permitting student-initiated prayers in classrooms and school events.

Defiance of Judge DeMent's ruling was so blatant that in October, he issued a sweeping injunction against the governor, state education officials and the DeKalb County school system. Among other things, he ordered that the Gideons could not throw Bibles through the windows of departing school buses (at least one student was injured).

The DeKalb County case was brought by Michael Chandler, a vice principal who has not been promoted in the 10 years since he first opposed school-sponsored religious practices. According to Mr. Chandler, the impetus for his action came when he registered two sisters who were transferring from another elementary school.

"Does that Bible man come to this school?" asked one girl. She was referring to a recruiter for a summer Bible camp, who solicited students during class time -- and at Mr. Chandler's school as well. "At my other school," she said, "I had to sit in the hall and the kids were mean to me."

Said Mr. Chandler: "I saw the damages done personally, eye-to-eye, to these little girls when they were being harassed because of their religion."

His son, Jesse, now 14, would also face harassment. Every day when Jesse enters the school cafeteria, his classmates stand and recite the Lord's Prayer -- in ridicule, not reverence.

Mr. Chandler and his family recently received an award at the annual conference of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a watchdog group founded 50 years ago that helped represent Mr. Chandler in court.

A South Carolina educator at the conference, Sharon Robles, told a story similar to Mr. Chandler's. A little girl in her kindergarten class would ask every day whether pork was being served for lunch. When asked why, the child's only reply was, "I can't eat pork."

One day, a teacher's assistant offered to lead the class in a lunchtime blessing, but Ms. Robles demurred, saying that it would make some children feel excluded. That same afternoon, the little girl whispered: "Miss Robles, the reason I don't eat pork is I'm a Muslim, and Muslims don't eat pork. But I could never tell anybody."

A basic right

She shouldn't have to, and under the First Amendment she has the right not to.

Throughout the nation, children must bow their spirits to government-enforced religion. It is a violation that will continue until, as in the civil rights movement, Americans refuse to allow it.

Linda R. Monk wrote "The Bill of Rights: A User's Guide," which won the American Bar Association's Gavel Award. She writes from Alexandria, Va.

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