Religious Liberty
An American Heritage

School Board Ruling Praised in Alabama

On October 20, 2000, Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor called a federal appeals court ruling allowing student-led prayers at public schools a "victory for the First Amendment."

The decision by the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirming that a federal judge went too far in restricting student prayers in a northeast Alabama school system was praised by Pryor.

He continued, "This ruling is a victory for the First Amendment. It is a victory for public school students to pray and express their religious beliefs."

Unanimously, the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent wrongly restricted students' religious expression in 1997 when he imposed restrictions including limiting religious references in a valedictorian's graduation address last year.

In light of a U.S. Supreme Court decision restricting student prayer prior to football games in Texas, the court ordered the appeals court to reconsider its decision earlier this year.

There was no conflict with the Supreme Court ruling because student-initiated prayers should not be considered government sponsorship of religion concluded the three-judge panel of the circuit court on October 19, 2000. The court said, "So long as prayer is genuinely student-initiated, and not the product of any school policy which actively or surreptitiously encourages it, the speech is private and it is protected. The three-judge panel ruled, "Therefore if nothing in the Constitution… prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during or after the school day, then it does not prohibit prayer aloud or in front of others, as in the case of an audience assembled for some other purpose."

On October 20, 2000, the decision was called "a monumental victory for free speech," by the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative non-profit public interest law group.

The center's chief counsel, Jay A. Sekulow, who argued the case before the appeals court on behalf of the state of Alabama said, "We believed all along that the case in Alabama involving the federal court order restricting student prayer was unconstitutional."

The decision "sends a strong signal that student-led, student-initiated prayer is still constitutionally protected in this country," added Sekulow.

The original lawsuit was filed by Michael Chandler, an assistant school principal who said his son Jessie was being pressured to join in religious activities. Activities including organized prayer in classrooms and distribution of Bibles on campus were also complaints listed by Chandler.

After the October 20th ruling, Chandler said he would probably appeal the Eleventh Circuit decision. He is now retired from the DeKalb County Alabama school system.

("Alabama Praises School Prayer Ruling," United Press International, October 21, 2000)

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