Court monitor reports on possible violations at Alabama graduation

Tuesday, June 9, 1998

The DeKalb County School Board has begun an investigation of one its high schools for allegedly conducting religiously infused graduation ceremonies in violation of a federal court order.

Spurred by a report filed Friday with the federal judge who last year ordered school officials in DeKalb County to stop sanctioning religious activities during school events, the school board began investigating the graduation ceremonies performed in late May at Sylvania High School.

Chriss Doss, a Birmingham attorney, was appointed by U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent to make sure religious activities in DeKalb schools did not violate the order he issued in October 1997. In part, DeMent's order forbids teachers and other school officials from sanctioning or encouraging prayer at graduation ceremonies.

Doss said in his report to DeMent that Sylvania's graduation “had a strong appearance of violating the court's order(s)… .”

At the May 26 graduation ceremonies, the class historian led the audience in the Lord's Prayer. The Sylvania ceremonies also included a religious speech by Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., and a musical performance by a minister and his wife that included a Christian song.

Doss suggested that the class historian's recital of the Lord's Prayer violated the order because he asked the audience to join in.

DeMent noted in his order that “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.”

As for the selection of music, Doss noted that “it could be classified as a contemporary praise song (hymn) with a strong Christology emphasis that is used in many praise services today in a number of Protestant congregations. The song is strictly Christian in substance and would be most readily appropriate in many types of religious worship services.”

Rep. Aderholt defended his speech and the other activities at the Sylvania graduation.

“My remarks were not to raise some type of protest,” Aderholt said. “I certainly never encouraged anyone to violate a court order. Nothing there that went on that night violated the First Amendment. It was completely student-led.”

Doss said Aderholt's comments were “probably permissible under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and not prohibited by the court's order(s) in this case.”

Nonetheless, Doss called Aderholt's speech “different” from most graduation speeches.

“Next, [Aderholt] moved on to discuss Federal Judges or some Federal Judges, as though he were at a protest rally concerning public prayer in public schools,” Doss wrote to DeMent. “He told the audience to watch for other things to come in the House of Representatives about religion in school matters. After finishing the political protest-type portion of his speech, Congressman Aderholt ended by invoking God's blessing on the nation and on those present.”

Doss also stated in his report that as he was leaving the graduation, he heard one man comment: “I feel like I have been to church.”

DeMent's 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 invalidated the law as a violation of the separation of church and state. A year later, DeMent issued the injunction because many DeKalb County officials continued 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 DeMent will use Doss' report to determine whether Sylvania High School officials flouted the injunction.

“I think it is a serious matter, that the students at Sylvania definitely did what the injunction said not to do and obviously the principal allowed them to do it,” Sumners said. “At the moment, however, we [the ACLU] are leaving it up to DeKalb officials to conduct an investigation and then to take action.”

Richard Land, DeKalb's superintendent, said the board of education would take action during a June 25 meeting.

Bob French, the school board's attorney, told The Birmingham News that Gary Carlisle, Sylvania's principal, could be fired if the board determines he deliberately encouraged students or the audience to ignore DeMent's injunction.

Sumners said she believes Carlisle intended for the graduation ceremonies to flout DeMent's order.

“Think about it–this is the same principal that within a week of the injunction's issuance came out in defiance of the order,” Sumners said. “He is about nothing but defiance and the problem is he fails to tell the truth.”

Carlisle said he would not comment about the situation, although he facetiously questioned Sumner's take on Sylvania's graduation ceremonies.

“Is the ACLU a psychic organization?” he asked. “[Sumners] must not have read our letters saying we were going to obey the judge's orders.”

Doss said that he attended Sylvania's graduation ceremonies partly because of Carlisle's public stances against Judge DeMent.

“I had reached a conclusion before attending Sylvania's graduation that if there were going to be problems it would be there,” he said. Carlisle “has never ceased protest. I believe that he has participated in every demonstration against DeMent's injunction that has occurred in the county.”

Overall Doss said he was pleased that seven out of eight DeKalb schools appeared to have “adhered to the spirit of DeMent's decision.”