Alabama educators learn do’s, don’ts of religion in schools

Friday, April 24, 1998

Teachers and administrators from the DeKalb County, Ala., school system gathered yesterday for a court-ordered education training session regarding the proper role for religion in public schools.

Last year, U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent issued an injunction against the DeKalb schools, ordering officials there to cease their encouragement of student religious expression. DeMent's injunction included the in-service training as a way to help teachers avoid unconstitutional endorsements of religion.

Before about 500 school personnel at an Alabama community college, Charles Haynes, senior scholar at The Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center, and Oliver Thomas, a religious-liberty attorney — both approved by DeMent — answered questions about the ways in which religious beliefs may be expressed in the public schools.

“We emphasized that there are many ways in which religious expression is allowed in the public schools,” Haynes said. “Public schools don't have to be places where religion is excluded; they should be places where people are treated fairly.”

Before the two-and-a-half-hour training session for all DeKalb County educators, Haynes and Thomas met with a group of honor students and principals to discuss graduation ceremonies.

“Our concern and interest is how we can work for fairness for people of all faiths or none,” Haynes told the group. “Surely under the First Amendment we can achieve that.”

Thomas told the group that students' rights to express their faith must be protected without imposing that faith on other people, especially at graduation ceremonies. One of the complaints raised in the lawsuit that prompted DeMent's injunction was that students were permitted to give “altar calls” during graduation speeches.

A DeKalb principal asked Thomas whether a speech written by a valedictorian could be censored for containing religious expression.

Thomas responded that unless the speech is construed as harassing others or as being endorsed by the school, the student's religious statements should be allowed to stand.

Haynes added that because those attending graduation ceremonies have been regarded by the U.S. Supreme Court as a “captive audience,” the interests of individual speakers must be balanced against the rights of those in the audience.

“The principal's job is to allow the student speaker as much freedom as possible while at the same time thinking of the whole community,” Haynes said.

A student asked Haynes, “May I use scripture or a religious quote in my speech?”

“Think about what kind of country it would be if you could quote Thomas Jefferson or Jefferson Airplane but not the Bible,” Haynes said. “Of course you can.”

DeMent's guidelines have not been warmly received by some in the state. Alabama Gov. Fob James and the state attorney general have criticized the order as too restrictive on the rights of students to express their religious beliefs at school.

Days before the in-service training, a local Christian group led a protest at a DeKalb elementary school. That same group, the Christian Family Association, gathered yesterday outside the community college to deride DeMent and the in-service training.

About 400 people came together to sing religious songs and wave signs denouncing the judge. Less than a dozen of the 500 DeKalb school officials and teachers joined the protesters.

Scott McFall, one DeKalb teacher who did join the protest, told The Birmingham News that he was disappointed by the in-service training session.

“I think what we're looking for is yes or no answers, and we didn't get many,” he said. “We kind of know everything they told us.”

Dekalb County Supt. Richard Land said that he has received “only positive feedback from teachers and administrators” concerning the training.

“I was greatly impressed with the in-service program and the quality presentation of Charles Haynes and Oliver Thomas,” Land said. “I believe that the teachers and administrators of DeKalb County gained new insight into the religious freedoms they have in the school setting, as opposed to fears and negative miscommunications that have surrounded this case.”

DeMent's order, issued in October, bars “religious activity in class, including vocal prayer, Bible and religious devotional or scriptural readings, distribution of religious materials, texts or announcements, and discussions of devotional/inspirational nature.”

The order also lists religious activities that are permissible in the schools. The order does not bar use of the Bible for academic study; students' voluntary religious expression in homework, reports, artwork, or other school assignments; display of religious symbols, articles, medals, and religious messages on clothing; meetings of religious clubs during free time (if other, secular student groups are also allowed to meet); or the handing-out of religious material by students during free time.

Haynes said he believed the training session produced progress.

“We really discussed how the First Amendment can bring the community together,” he said. “We talked about the religious-liberty rights of all students and about creating a civic agreement to protect religious expression in schools and at the same time to keep government from involving itself in religion.

“I think we turned a corner in DeKalb County, and it was my sense that we really helped the teachers see that something good can come out of this court order.”

Haynes and Thomas are planning more training sessions for DeKalb officials, probably in early August.

“We are not going to preach one day and leave,” Haynes said. “We are in this for the long haul.”