Alabama public school principal says he did not defy judge’s order

Monday, August 10, 1998

A public high school principal in Alabama says he did not defy state or federal constitutions by permitting the school's graduation ceremony to take on the appearance of a worship service.

Nevertheless, last week U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent told the DeKalb County School Board to order Gary Carlisle, principal of Sylvania High School, “to attend three individual training sessions” on the illegality of school-sponsored religious activities. The training is to be conducted by the board's “attorneys and other parties the board's attorneys believe would help Mr. Carlisle understand” First Amendment law and DeMent's injunction – issued last year – barring school-sponsored prayer and other religious acts.

DeMent's order was spurred by the court-appointed monitor's report that the graduation services at Sylvania had “the strong appearance of violating the Court's order.” According to Chriss Doss, a Birmingham attorney, the May 26 graduation ceremonies included the class historian leading the audience in the Lord's Prayer and a musical performance by a minister and his wife.

Carlisle issued a statement Friday suggesting he might not abide by DeMent's latest ruling.

“I care more about the constitutional rights of DeKalb students than what the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) or the federal court think of me,” Carlisle said. “I have not violated the Constitution of Alabama, the Constitution of the U.S., or any court injunction knowingly or inadvertently.”

Carlisle has been publicly critical of DeMent ever since the federal judge issued an injunction last October barring DeKalb teachers and administrators from sponsoring religious activities in the public schools. DeMent's order was spurred by a lawsuit brought by the ACLU against DeKalb administrators who were bent on enforcing the state's 1993 school-prayer bill. Before issuing his injunction, DeMent had struck the school-prayer bill down as a violation of the separation of church and state.

On numerous occasions, Carlisle has appeared with Dean Young, director of a small Gadsden-based Christian family values group, to deride DeMent's rulings. Young also issued a statement Friday saying: “God was never meant to be taken out of the schools. Let everybody be free to have voluntary prayer. The laws of this country are based on Judeo-Christian principles.”

DeMent's 1997 injunction barred only school-sponsored religious activity. The judge's order specifically listed forms of voluntary student expression that remained permissible, such as including religious beliefs in homework, art and other school assignments.

DeMent, however, said Carlisle must abide by the injunction, despite his political leanings.

“Mr. Carlisle should be instructed that while he is always free to have his own opinions and views, as an employer of the state, and, for that matter, as a citizen, he is obligated to follow the law, like it or not,” DeMent wrote in his order.

DeMent concluded that “memory drills and other learning aids, such as flash cards, should be utilized to ensure” that Carlisle would not confuse or forget the strictures of the order.

Pamela Sumners, a Birmingham attorney and cooperating ACLU attorney who brought the lawsuit against DeKalb county, said that DeMent's latest order was a break for Carlisle.

“I think the order is kind on his part and demonstrates that this judge has great reluctance in finding someone in contempt of court,” Sumners said. “He will do it if he has to, though. The latest order, I believe, is one last olive branch that Carlisle will receive.”

Sumners said she did expect more public defiance of DeMent's orders. In particular, Sumners said, students at Sylvania High School may attempt to flout the order at football games.

“When you combine Alabama's favorite things – football and prayer – you can only expect to have some defiance,” Sumners said. “Moreover, Dean Young and the American Center for Law and Justice are issuing statements that distort DeMent's order. There is, in fact, nothing but gross misinformation that is being put out about the ramifications of not complying with DeMent's orders.”

As an example, Sumners said that Young and the ACLJ had suggested that students who defy the order could be held in contempt of court by DeMent. “That is utter nonsense,” Sumners said. “DeMent can only hold parties to the suit in contempt and the students are not parties to this suit.”

The Birmingham Post-Herald agreed with Sumners that DeMent's order had been distorted. In a recent editorial, the paper praised DeMent for “enforcing the religious rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States” and derided the “anti-DeMent public passions that have been stirred up in northeastern Alabama by such minor league demagogues as Dean Young, who repeatedly distorts the meaning of the judge's orders.”

Today Carlisle and hundreds of other DeKalb administrators are attending a daylong workshop on religious activity in the public schools. The workshop was ordered by DeMent and is being led by Charles Haynes, senior scholar at The Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center, and Oliver Thomas, a religious-liberty attorney – both approved by the DeKalb School Board.