Alabama Governor reiterates support for public defiance of federal judge

Friday, June 26, 1998

Gov. Fob James...
Gov. Fob James

Once again Alabama's governor has said he would support public defiance of a federal court order barring school-sponsored religious activities.

Gov. Fob James told an audience of evangelical Christians in Dallas that a federal court ban on classroom prayer and other activities promoting religion in Alabama public schools is wrong and that he would support resistance to the order.

“People in DeKalb County are brave people, and they will resist, and I will support them,” James told members of the Christ for the Nations Institute, a Dallas-based school for Christian ministers. “This is where you see the Bill of Rights turned upside down and used against people. I don't know what it's going to take for the American people to wake up.”

James added that as long as he was governor he would face down federal “tyranny” to defend school prayer in DeKalb County.

Facing a close run-off election to remain the Republican Party's nominee for governor, James was at the organization's 50th anniversary celebration when he made the statements. It is not the first time James has encouraged public defiance of U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent's order that DeKalb County school officials cease sanctioning all manner of student religious expression.

DeMent's order in October was prompted by a lawsuit challenging the state's 1993 state school-prayer bill. The lawsuit named James as well as other state officials.

James derided DeMent's order before the Dallas audience as “a deadly, subterranean ideology that's eating away at the fabric of our country.”

Besides barring school-sponsored religious activities, DeMent's injunction also prohibits the state's attorney general and governor from “aiding, abetting, commanding, counseling, inducing, ordering, permitting, or procuring,” defiance of the order.

Pamela Sumners, the Birmingham attorney who challenged the state's school-prayer law, said she was contemplating asking DeMent to hold James in contempt of court for his comments.

“This is pure garbage,” Sumners said of James' comments. “It appears to be a complete reprise of George Wallace and tends to show that the people of Alabama have not learned to elect officials who care about the Constitution.”

Sumners said James was promoting lawlessness.

“The governor needs to realize that he is a party to this lawsuit,” she said. “The injunction clearly states that state officials involved cannot participate in or encourage anyone to break the terms of the injunction.”

Richard Land, Dekalb County's superintendent, said James was sending the wrong message to DeKalb students and teachers.

“We are role models to the students and the community and to ask us to or suggest we defy the law runs counter to our oaths of office,” Land said. “It is disturbing that some of our leaders are calling for defiance of the law.”

James' attack on the federal order came only days after an attorney, appointed by DeMent to ensure compliance, issued a report noting that graduation ceremonies at a DeKalb high school appeared to have run afoul of the court's ruling.

Chris Doss, the Birmingham attorney appointed by DeMent, filed a report on recent high school graduation ceremonies in DeKalb. Doss said seven of the eight high school graduation ceremonies appeared to be in compliance. DeMent's order bars school officials from permitting “prayers, invocations, benedictions, or devotional messages” during school-sponsored graduation ceremonies.

Doss, however, said that graduation ceremonies at Sylvania High School resembled a church service and therefore potentially subverted the federal order.

“I would not expect a champion of law and order to be saying that kind of thing,” Doss said, referring to James' comments. “The issue of compliance with DeMent's order is being tested to the brink by political rhetoric.”

Doss noted that within the last three days James' political ads have included sharp criticisms of DeMent's order.

“I hope the children of DeKalb schools will not suffer and that the political rhetoric does not create such a tinderbox of emotions that passion overcomes reason,” Doss said.

DeKalb Superintendent Land said he resented being “drawn into other people's agendas.”

“Our job is to administer and run the school system,” he said. “In a sense our situation is being used for political purposes. Religion should be taught in church and home. The school is where we teach the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic.”

Many conservative Christian organizations, however, have strongly supported James' crusade to alter the separation of church and state.

Arne Owens, spokesman for the Christian Coalition, said that James was a “champion of student-led prayer seeking to uphold the religious heritage of the people of Alabama.”

Owens termed DeMent's order “an unconstitutional infringement on the freedom to exercise religion, because it extends to voluntary student-led prayer, outside a compulsory setting.”

Sumners called it disingenuous to describe DeMent's order as preventing voluntary prayer. “The injunction does not bar any expression that is not within a captive audience,” she said.

DeMent's order bars “school organized or officially sanctioned religious activity in the classrooms of DeKalb County schools.” The order also states that students can express their religious beliefs in many ways. Students are allowed to express their beliefs in school-related assignments, on their clothing, during commencement exercises and during non-curricular religious club meetings, the order states.

Alabama's attorney general has asked the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn portions of DeMent's order.