Christian-infused high school graduation may have defied federal order

Friday, May 29, 1998

Despite a federal court order barring public school officials in an Alabama county from sponsoring or encouraging religious speech during graduation ceremonies, a commencement this week included the Lord's Prayer, Christian songs and an evangelistic speech by a state congressman.

Sylvania High School students listened at Tuesday night's graduation as a minister and his wife performed Christian songs. A student—the class historian–led the audience in reciting the Lord's Prayer. Students were also treated to an overtly religious speech by Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala. Besides expostulating on the importance Christianity plays in his life, Aderholt attacked the federal court order issued last year that prohibits DeKalb County school officials from encouraging an array of religious activities during school-sponsored events.

U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent issued a permanent injunction in October 1997 ordering county school officials to cease sanctioning certain forms of student religious expression.

The injunction, in part, bars public school officials from “aiding, abetting, commanding, counseling, including, ordering, procuring, participating in, or permitting prayers, invocations, benedictions, or devotional messages at graduation or commencement exercises … .”

DeMent's order, however, does allow for “brief personal expression by a student which contains religious references during a commencement exercise or student address, provided that such expression is not encouraged in any way by school officials and does not invite audience participation or response (for example, a student speaker may not invite the audience to participate with him or her in prayer or urge the audience to take a moment with him or her to thank a deity).”

The 1997 injunction was prompted by a lawsuit brought by the Alabama chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The civil rights organization representing a DeKalb County administrator challenged the state's 1993 school-prayer bill as unconstitutional. In 1996, DeMent found the law an affront to the First Amendment's separation of church and state. Less than a year after that ruling, however, DeMent issued the injunction because many DeKalb County officials had not ceased encouraging and sponsoring student religious activity during school events.

Pamela Sumners, the Birmingham attorney who represented the DeKalb administrator on behalf of the ACLU, said that she will not immediately file a complaint with the federal court.

“I'm not going to take immediate action with the court in regards to what happened at Sylvania High School,” Sumners said. “I am going to write the school board's attorney and ask that the situation be investigated and that the principal of Sylvania be informed that it is a plain violation of the injunction to permit the class historian to invite the audience to pray with him.”

Sumners added that “no doubt DeMent has read the papers and is aware of the situation, so something may happen in the next couple of weeks.”

Several state officials have been critical of the federal injunction. Gov. Fob James has gone so far as to suggest the First Amendment is not applicable to Alabama and therefore, DeMent's order is null and void.

The state's attorney general, however, has taken a more orthodox approach—he appealed the decision to a higher federal court.

Attorney General Bill Pryor said that since he was not present at the Sylvania graduation and because he is representing DeKalb officials in the appeal, he could not comment on the specifics of what occurred at the graduation.

In April, DeKalb County teachers and administrators gathered for in-service training led by Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar at The Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center, and Oliver Thomas, a religious-liberty attorney—both approved by the DeKalb County School Board.

Richard Land, DeKalb's superintendent, said that the training was a success and that he hoped Sylvania High School would not be found in violation of DeMent's order. Land, however, said he could not comment further because Chris Doss, the federal court-appointed monitor, has not filed his report on DeKalb's graduation ceremonies.

Doss said that he hopes to file a report Wednesday with DeMent. Doss, who was at the Sylvania graduation, said DeMent has the power to impose fines, “but he hasn't threatened anyone” because he “does expect his order to be obeyed.”

Doss said: “I really believe that most everyone within the DeKalb education system and in the community has applied themselves to trying to be in compliance.”

Haynes said he is optimistic most DeKalb County officials are working to comply with the federal order.

“Because of the high level of conflict and debate about religious expression in DeKalb County schools, it's almost inevitable that there will be a few incidents where people attempt to defy the court's order—especially at graduation,” Haynes said. “The good news is that the leadership of the school district and most of the educators in DeKalb County want to do the right thing.”

In an editorial in the Fort Payne (Ala.) Times-Journal, “sources” claim that eight of the nine DeKalb school graduation ceremonies were “in compliance with the law.” As for Sylvania High School, the paper concluded that if its ceremonies were in violation of the order, the entire school system should not be held “accountable for the actions of just one.”