Court monitor completes first visits to Alabama schools in prayer case

Wednesday, March 4, 1998

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — A court official monitoring religious practices in DeKalb County’s schools won’t be there often enough to get his own parking space.

Superintendent Richard Land on Tuesday said Chriss Doss had completed his first visits to county schools, and Doss made it clear he has no plans to spy on students or teachers.

“He said he did not see himself coming into the county and investigating every complaint, that he would refer them to us,” Land said. “Theoretically, at least, he may not even come back.”

Doss, a Baptist minister and Birmingham attorney, completed his initial round of visits to the county’s 13 schools last week, Land said.

“He had a real good rapport with the students and the principals, but especially the students,” said Land. “He allowed them to express themselves … and gave them his toll-free number to call if they felt their rights were being violated.”

Doss was appointed as monitor last month under an Oct. 29 order by U.S. district court Judge Ira DeMent, who banned school-sponsored religious activities in the county, located in northeast Alabama.

DeMent’s order stems from a lawsuit in 1995 by Michael Chandler, a DeKalb County school administrator. Chandler’s suit challenged a 1993 state law that permitted school-sponsored prayer. DeMent in 1996 ruled that the law violated the separation of church and state. DeKalb County school officials, however, did not cease sponsoring prayer and other religious activities.

To ensure an end to what critics saw as the county’s repeated failure to abide by past orders limiting religion in the classroom, DeMent appointed the monitor to act on behalf on the court.

Doss said he was pleased with his reception in the county. “I would say that the meetings have been forthright but very civil,” he said. “While I’m well aware that some do not like me in the county in this role–and I understand that–I have met with virtually no hostility.”

Land said no DeKalb County residents have complained about Doss since the meetings, but opponents accused DeMent of appointing “prayer police” to snoop on children and teachers.

A Gadsden group that has been vocal in criticizing DeMent on Wednesday questioned Doss’ right to call himself a Baptist minister.

“A true minister would never make anyone scared to have voluntary prayer or Bible reading, and that is exactly what (Doss) is doing,” said a statement by the Christian Family Association.

Doss said he thinks his role will be minor. “I have taken a position that I’m not getting involved if they will handle their own situation. And I’m confident they’re going to. I am basically very optimistic that this thing is going to settle down, and I don’t see it being much of an issue in DeKalb County.”

He said he believes residents no longer see him as a “Sand Mountain Sleuth.”

Doss is director of the Center for the Study of Law and Church at Samford University, which is affiliated with the Alabama Baptist State Convention. He previously served as the convention’s attorney.

A statement from Samford President Thomas E. Corts said Doss accepted the assignment on his own as a private attorney, not a school employee. “We extend to him, as we do to others, the right to exercise his judgment and express his opinions,” Corts said.

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