Alabama School Prayer Law Challenged (March 1996)

A lawsuit with far-reaching consequences was filed in federal court on February 1, challenging unconstitutional religious practices in Alabama schools and a law passed in 1993 authorizing student-led prayer.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has timed a mass mailing to Alabama school officials of its educational brochure, “The Case Against School Prayer,” to coincide with the lawsuit.

Assistant principal Michael Chandler of Valley Head High School contends the DeKalb County school district has long violated the U.S. Constitution, ignoring years of complaints over practices including prayers before graduation ceremonies and football games, classroom distribution of Gideon bibles, and classroom prayers.

Chandler and his son Jesse, a 7th grader, are named plaintiffs. “Jane Doe” and her daughter Deborah are also plaintiffs challenging the Talladega city school board in the lawsuit taken by the ACLU of Alabama and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The lawsuit, filed in Montgomery, challenges a 1993 state law authorizing student-initiated prayers at “compulsory or noncompulsory” student assemblies, graduation ceremonies, and athletic contests.

That law was adopted after the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower-court ruling that approved student-led, “nonproselytizing,” nonsectarian prayers in Texas. Religious Right groups have cited the case to lobby for school prayers nationwide.

A similar Mississippi law was declared unconstitutional by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in January.

“Organized religion just pervades the school day” in DeKalb County schools, according to Chandler’s attorney, Steven Green, of Americans United.

As part of his duties, Chandler must attend many school and school-related functions where prayer is occurring, including football games. Clergy commonly lead Christian prayers and bible-reading over the public-address systems at school games, pep rallies, 4-H meetings which are held during the school day, and graduations. He and Jane Doe also allege that the law interferes with their parental rights. Jesse Chandler and Deborah Doe are continually exposed to unwelcome prayer at compulsory and other school events, the lawsuit contends.

Jesse’s 6th-grade teacher last year solicited students to pray at the front of the class or read from the bible. Students who did not want to pray were told to stand in the hall.

Religion was also part of a ceremony for a drug-education program that Jesse had to attend as a 5th grader where students read from the bible. Jesse also attended a mandatory student assembly last fall featuring a Christian evangelist, who preached at students and invited them to attend a “pizza party” held in conjunction with his evangelistic crusade meetings. Deborah attended a school-wide assembly during the 1994-95 school year where religious representatives used biblical and religious arguments against abortion and use of drugs, also soliciting students for a Christian”pizza party.”

In November, 1994, Jesse’s 5th-grade class was interrupted when his assistant principal ordered his teacher to stop classroom instruction so that Gideon representatives could visit the class and distribute bibles. The Gideons annually distribute bibles to fifth graders and to high school seniors in every DeKalb County school except for Valley Head High School, where Chandler has barred it.

A news conference held at the time of the lawsuit filing included participation by several clergy opposing religion in public schools. Foundation member Betty Gartman represented a Mobile Unitarian Universalist society.

“Alabama Freethought Association members are very appreciative and supportive of Mr. Chandler and the plaintiffs in this case,” commented Pat Cleveland, co-president of the Foundation’s chapter. Ms. Cleveland noted that Chandler has bravely protested school prayer for at least a decade, first as a counselor, then as a teacher, and now as an administrator.

The lawsuit contends that the 1993 law and religious practices violate Supreme Court rulings as recent as the Weisman decision of 1992 against religious commencement ceremonies, the 1962 and 1963 court rulings against school-mandated prayer and worship, and the 1984 Jaffree case striking an Alabama prayer/meditation law, as well as as precedent against Gideon presence in public schools.

Gov. Fob James, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Alabama State Superintendent of Education Ed Richardson also are named in the lawsuit. ACLU counsel include Stephen L. Pevar of Denver, who was an attorney for Beverly Harris (1995 Freethinker of the Year) as well as Pamela L. Sumners, Birmingham, and James Tucker, Montgomery.   

Freedom From Religion Foundation