Court-mandated training irks Alabama religious group

Tuesday, April 7, 1998

Less than two weeks before court-ordered training of public school teachers in Alabama is scheduled to begin, a local Christian group rallied in protest.

The upcoming legal session is designed to help teachers avoid unconstitutional endorsements of religion.

From a public school playground in Collinsville, Ala., the head of the Christian Family Association on Monday derided the federal court ruling that ordered DeKalb County public school teachers to cease supporting and encouraging religious expression during school hours.

Dean Young singled out a part of the order that mandates in-service training for public school teachers.

“What they're saying is if these teachers don't participate they could be carted off to jail by federal marshals,” Young said. “It's a sad day in this country when teachers are being forced to go to an in-service, and if they don't go, they can be thrown in jail. We will not stand for it here in DeKalb County and we won't stand for it across Alabama.”

Young's group, based in Gadsden, Ala., was founded to promote the display of religious plaques, like the Ten Commandments, in public buildings. Recently, however, Young has focused on the federal court order issued last year.

U.S. district court Judge Ira DeMent issued a permanent injunction in October 1997 ordering DeKalb County school officials to cease sanctioning all manner of student religious expression.

DeMent's injunction was prompted by a lawsuit filed by Michael Chandler, an assistant high school principal in DeKalb County who challenged the constitutionality of a 1993 state school-prayer bill. In 1996, DeMent found the law unconstitutional as a violation of separation of church and state because it allowed for school-sponsored religious activities.

DeKalb County school officials, however, did not cease supporting and encouraging student religious expression during the school day.

DeMent responded to the state's noncompliance by issuing the order permanently barring “religious activity in class, including vocal prayer, Bible and religious devotional or scriptural readings, distribution or religious materials, texts or announcements, and discussions of devotional/inspirational nature, regardless of whether it was initiated by students.”

DeMent's order called for a court-approved monitor to help teachers abide by the injunction, as well as an in-service training session that is scheduled for April 23.

Young, joined by about a dozen residents at the school playground, said that teachers are opposed to the training session but are too afraid not to attend.

“We want to be with them to let them know we're not going to let some tyrant like Judge DeMent force them to do things without us standing up with them,” he said.

Pamela Sumners, the Birmingham attorney who represented Chandler on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, says DeKalb County teachers want to attend the session.

“DeKalb County is supposed to comply with that injunction and yes, the in-service training is mandatory,” Sumners said.

“The attitude of Dean Young is despicable. DeKalb teachers have been asking for guidance from the court ever since the suit was filed. The school board for the first time in years wants to comply with the law and the teachers want to attend. Unfortunately, that fact is beyond the thinking” of Dean Young, she said.

Robert French, attorney for DeKalb County schools, also praised the training sessions and questioned the logic of Young's objections.

“Mr. Young is another person who is distributing false information for his own selfish goals—which are to raise lots of money for his political group,” French said. “He is a total demagogue” and his claim that many teachers don't want to attend the session is off base.

French said as long as DeMent's order remains in place he will inform DeKalb County teachers of the need to comply.

In late March, the state attorney general filed an appeal arguing that DeMent's order goes too far in restricting religious expression of DeKalb County students.

French dismissed the appeal as a political tactic.

“I don't think the decision will be reversed,” French said. “The attorney general is a politician looking for re-election. I realize that we are the home of last reconstructed rebels, but people in this state must realize that we are part of the nation. It is time someone told the people what the law is.”

Young, however, said DeMent's order was intended to take religion out of school and called on his supporters to be at the in-service training to protest.

The training session will be led by Charles Haynes and Oliver Thomas — both approved by DeKalb County school officials. Haynes is a senior scholar at The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center and Thomas is a religious-liberty attorney. The two will be working with staff, faculty and district school leaders at a daylong workshop in DeKalb County.

French said he would be surprised if Young is “able to hog-tie and drag a hundred people to protest.” Instead French said Young is more likely to only have 12 people who will be willing to “come out and make spectacles of themselves.”

Sumners, however, said that it is highly possible that some schools in DeKalb County will test the injunction by allowing prayer at graduation ceremonies. “We will be monitoring the graduation ceremony carefully,” she said.