Alabama teachers get lessons in upholding First Amendment

Wednesday, August 12, 1998

Gearing up for the start of a new school year, public school officials in Alabama this week attended two days of court-ordered training on how to respect religious rights of students.

DeKalb County Superintendent Richard Land called the sessions led by Charles Haynes, senior scholar at The Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center, and Oliver Thomas, a religious-liberty attorney, a “positive learning experience” for the more than 500 school employees in attendance.

The workshop centered on how to abide by a permanent injunction issued last year by U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent. The injunction ordered DeKalb County school officials to cease school-sponsored religious activities. DeMent's injunction followed a ruling a year earlier in which he struck down the state's school-prayer bill that permitted school-sponsored religious activities.

DeMent's injunction also called for a court-approved monitor to report on the district's progress in complying with the order, as well as several in-service training sessions. Haynes and Thomas also led the first round of in-service sessions in April. Although no more sessions with Haynes and Thomas are mandated, Thomas said that the DeKalb School Board is considering creating its own policies regarding religious expression in the public schools. He said that if the board asks, he and Haynes would help.

Land, DeKalb's superintendent, said he is optimistic that the district's teachers and administrators are on the road to complying with the federal judge's order.

“As long as the teachers have a clear understanding of their rights and those of the students, then I think we've won the battle,” Land said.

Chriss Doss, the court-appointed monitor, also praised the sessions.

“I think they (Haynes and Thomas) have done an excellent job and they have been balanced,” Doss, a Birmingham attorney, said. “If anyone listens to what they say and uses common sense, then I think there will be no more problems with compliance.”

Doss gave DeMent a report in May detailing graduation ceremonies in DeKalb County. The monitor praised the majority of schools for complying with the injunction, but mentioned one ceremony that he believed violated the order. Last week, DeMent responded to Doss' report by ordering the school board to require Gary Carlisle, principal of Sylvania High School, “to attend three individual training sessions” on the illegality of school-sponsored prayer.

Carlisle has maintained he did not violate the order when he allowed Sylvania's May 26 graduation ceremony to include the class historian leading the audience in the Lord's Prayer and a musical performance by a minister and his wife. The minister and his wife performed a song Doss described as “strictly Christian in substance” that would have been “most readily appropriate in many types of religious worship services.”

Land said Carlisle attended this week's in-service training and “did not appear hostile.”

Carlisle, however, said that he thought he followed DeMent's order by allowing the student to ask the audience to join in reciting the Lord's Prayer. The Associated Press reported this week that Carlisle said he believed some blame for the improper activities at Sylvania's graduation should rest with the in-service training sessions led by Thomas and Haynes.

Thomas said examples were provided to the teachers and administrators at the April session about the proper role for religious expression at graduation ceremonies and that apparently Carlisle was the only one to be confused.

“I asked the other administrators this week if they recalled our discussion about a graduation speaker encouraging the audience to join in a religious activity. All of them responded that they recalled it,” said Thomas, co-author along with Haynes of Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Education. The in-service training sessions have relied in large part on the guidelines in the book as well as DeMent's order. DeMent approved Finding Common Ground as a training tool for the teachers.

Thomas added that Carlisle's comments “give the impression that the First Amendment Center is being less than professional – nothing could be further from the truth.”

Doss said that all other principals in DeKalb County followed DeMent's order regarding graduation ceremonies and that Haynes and Thomas were a major help.

Thomas said he was pleased with the progress DeKalb County school officials have made regarding religion in the schools.

“This has been a real test for the First Amendment because it is sometimes much harder to apply in homogenous communities,” Thomas said. “The community is pretty much all Protestant and members have a hard time understanding why they can't continue with certain religious activities in the schools.

“After these sessions, however, I'm confident that most of the people in DeKalb County understand and are ready to commit themselves to a neutral arrangement between government and religion,” Thomas said. “DeKalb County may one day become a model for other Southern school districts that have yet to take this issue seriously. There are still many school districts in the South that have not come to terms with the school-prayer decisions of the 1960s and are either promoting religion, ignoring it or are confused about its proper role. Eventually, those districts will have to deal with the problem.”

According to Land, Doss and Thomas, the only apparent opposition to DeMent's order has come from a newly created Christian-values group based in Gadsden, Alabama. The group led by Dean Young has vociferously attacked DeMent and all those involved in trying to implement the order.

Doss said Young has been able to gather small groups together for protest but has not influenced DeKalb County teachers or administrators.

“I've talked with a lot of DeKalb officials and I would say that 90 percent or more feel that they can abide by the order,” Doss said.

Thomas noted that Young is not a resident of DeKalb County and that his children do not attend county schools. “He is just as much an outsider as Judge DeMent,” Thomas said.

Calls placed to Young were not returned.