A federal appellate court ruling on school prayer in Alabama is a "mixed bag," according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled July 13 that teachers and other school officials may not prescribe prayers, but they also may not prohibit religious speech by students. The appeals panel said a federal district court injunction in the Chandler v. James case unduly restricted student religious speech and sent the case back for revision.
Americans United, which sponsored the case along with the ACLU of Alabama, said the latest decision is disappointing, but leaves in place many church-state safeguards.
"This decision is a decidedly mixed bag," observed Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. "We are pleased that the appellate court recognized that school officials may not promote prayer and other religious activities or enlist students to do so. However, we are troubled by some of the court's confusing language, which seems to allow inappropriate student-led religious activities at school events."
Lynn expressed concern about the appellate court's apparent hostility toward church-state separation and its seeming indifference to the rights of religious minorities who may not want to be subjected to religious pressures while attending public school classes and other events.
The appellate court decision said the Constitution "probably does not require a 'wall'" of separation between church and state (as Thomas Jefferson insisted) and said students who don't want to be exposed to prayer and religion at school "are free not to listen, and to express their disagreement by not participating in any way."
Responded Lynn, "Public schools are not churches, and students should never be made a captive congregation for religious worship and sermonizing. I don't think the appellate court fully understood what was at issue in this case. We will take the necessary legal steps to see that this decision does not undercut the religious neutrality of our public schools."
The Chandler case was filed in 1996 when Michael Chandler and his son objected to school-sanctioned Christian prayer, Bible distribution, religiously based student assemblies and other religious activities in the DeKalb County public schools. The lawsuit also challenged a 1993 Alabama law allowing student-led prayer at "compulsory or non-compulsory" school events such as graduation and athletic contests.
In October and November 1997 U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent took strong judicial action to correct the constitutional violations. Among his actions were:
Americans United's Lynn said Judge DeMent's core decisions remain in place. He dismissed claims by Alabama Attorney General William Pryor and Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice that the appeals court decision was a major victory for their side.
"The appeals court left in place broad restrictions on school sponsorship of religion," said Lynn. "Pryor and his Religious Right cronies have completely failed to get school-sponsored religion back in Alabama's public schools. I can't imagine why they're crowing about this."
Americans United is a church-state watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents members, chapters and allies houses of worship in all 50 states.