July 28, 1999

Appeals court limits Alabama
ruling on school prayers

___By Larry Chesser
___Baptist Joint Committee
___ATLANTA (ABP)--A federal district judge went too far in his order barring school-sanctioned religious activities in an Alabama school district, a federal appeals court said July 13.
___The appeals court instructed District Judge Ira DeMent to rewrite his 1997 order so that it does not prohibit "genuinely student-initiated religious speech" in DeKalb County public schools.
___DeMent issued the order after Michael Chandler, a vice principal in the DeKalb County school system, and his son, Jesse, challenged a 1993 state law authorizing non-proselytizing, student-initiated prayer at school-sponsored events.
___DeMent struck down the state law and issued a permanent injunction barring DeKalb school officials from enforcing it. He also appointed a "monitor"--Chriss Doss, director of the Center for the Study of Law and the Church at Samford University's Cumberland Law School--to oversee compliance with his order in DeKalb schools.
___But in a 3-0 decision, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said DeMent cannot require school officials to bar "student-initiated religious speech" in school.
___"The suppression of student-initiated religious speech is neither necessary to, nor does it achieve, constitutional neutrality toward religion," the court said.
___"Permitting students to speak religiously signifies neither state approval nor disapproval of that speech," the appeals court said.
___ Allowing such speech, the court said, acknowledges the school's "constitutional duty to tolerate religious expression. Only in this way is true neutrality achieved."
___ The panel ordered DeMent to revise the permanent injunction so that it does not "prohibit genuinely student-initiated religious speech, nor apply restrictions on the time, place and manner of that speech which exceed those placed on students' secular speech."
___The free-speech rights of students are not without limits, the court said, noting that the school "may impose the same reasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner of religious speech as it does on secular speech."
___A student's right to express religious beliefs "does not extend to using the machinery of the state as a vehicle for converting his audience," the court added. "The Constitution requires that schools permit religious expression, not religious proselytizing."
___The ruling left in place DeMent's conclusion that the law enacted by the Alabama legislature was unconstitutional.
___It also did not disturb his order barring school-organized or officially sanctioned religious activities including "vocal prayer, Bible and devotional or scriptural readings, distribution of religious materials, texts or announcements and discussions of a devotional or inspirational nature in school or at school-related events, to include assemblies, sporting events and graduation ceremonies."
___Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, welcomed the appeals court's ruling.
___"This decision is a major victory for student religious speech in public schools," said Sekulow, who worked with the Alabama attorney general to appeal DeMent's ruling.
___Brent Walker, general counsel at the Baptist Joint Committee, said "much of the 11th Circuit's opinion is right on target--it approved most of Judge DeMent's order."
___Walker said the opinion is "misguided to the extent it approves of student prayer in the context of state sponsorship.
___"Students do not have the right to lead a captive audience in prayer when the school compels or encourages their attendance," he added.

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