Alabama school board, Jewish family settle lawsuit

Friday, April 24, 1998

Officials for a rural Alabama school board have settled a federal lawsuit brought by the community's only Jewish family, who claimed their children had been tormented at school for their religious beliefs.

Attorneys for the Pike County School Board signed a consent decree Tuesday promising that the teachers and staff will work to create an atmosphere of religious tolerance for Sue and Wayne Willis' children: Paul Herring, David Herring, Sarah Herring and Rachel Willis.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama sued the county school board on behalf of the family last summer, alleging that the children's religious freedom had been impinged on by the actions of teachers, staff and students.

The family's suit details what had been “essentially Christian worship services in the guise of school assemblies,” including a “Birth of Jesus” play at a school assembly, a “Happy Birthday, Jesus” party in a classroom, and regular distribution of Bibles on school grounds by representatives of Gideon International.

On one occasion, the suit charges, 14-year-old Paul Herring was told to write an essay on “Why Jesus Loves Me” as part of his discipline for disrupting class. When the child's parents complained to school officials, one teacher allegedly responded, “If parents will not save souls, we have to.”

The ACLU argued in the suit that those actions went beyond the boundaries of the First Amendment's principle of separation of church and state.

Upon filing the suit, Wayne Willis lamented that many people “may say that we are a Jewish family living in the deep South and we should have known better and not moved here. But the Constitution and the Bill of Rights belong to all of us.”

The consent decree, which must be approved by the federal judge who recently settled a similar lawsuit in DeKalb County, requires teachers and staff to “refrain from organizing or sanctioning organized religious activities including vocal prayer, Bible or religious devotions, scriptural readings or distribution of pamphlets during instructional time.
“The public-address system or assemblies are not to be used for prayer or religious messages,” continued the decree, which also ordered “that there be no invocations at graduation exercises and sporting events.”

Guidelines set out by the decree mirror those issued by U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent last October for DeKalb County schools. The DeKalb County school district also had been sued for encouraging, promoting and aiding student religious activity, in accordance with the state's school-prayer law.

Last year, DeMent invalidated the school-prayer bill and told DeKalb County school teachers and administrators to cease sponsoring student religious activities during the school day. Gov. Fob James denounced DeMent's decision, and the state attorney general has appealed the decision.

The guidelines agreed to by Pike county officials — like those for DeKalb County — also include a list of permissible religious activities and uses of school facilities. The settlement allows teachers to use religious texts as part of course study, if the material is presented in an academic manner. It also allows students to express their religious beliefs in their assignments and to engage in religious activity during free time, to pass out religious materials according to school policy, to wear religious emblems or clothing, and to form religious groups for meetings during free time.

Neither the governor nor the attorney general has intervened in the Pike County situation.

Pamela Sumners, a Birmingham attorney affiliated with the state ACLU, said that the Pike County case was much easier to solve than the one in DeKalb.

“This proves to me that in the state of Alabama a religious liberty suit can be settled — as long as the governor is not involved,” Sumners said. “We have a history of governors' saying, 'Get your federal judiciary out of here.' We believe in states' rights, and we believe in minority will. Just as you had Gov. George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door on racism, you have Fob James in the schoolhouse door on school prayer.”

After the Pike County family filed suit, the children reported no more problems, Sumners added. “The Pike County school board really did act in good faith, and we were able to settle it without any bitterness,” she said.

Donald Sweeney, the school board's attorney, said the settlement serves all parties and interests and saves the county costs of litigation.

“Pike County school officials have and will continue to be sensitive to the religious rights of the Herring children,” Sweeney said.