Federal appeals court refuses to review Alabama prayer case

Friday, October 8, 1999

A federal appeals court's decision to stand by its ruling that allows some
prayer in Alabama schools is being lauded by the state's attorney general as a
victory for government-sponsored school prayer.

Earlier this summer a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals threw out some of U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent's 1997 permanent
injunction against school-sponsored religious activities in DeKalb County
schools. The full court decided last week not to review the panel's ruling.

Specifically, the appeals panel concluded that DeMent was correct to strike
down an Alabama law permitting organized prayer in the public schools, but went
too far in quelling voluntary student-led prayer. In August, the state affiliate
of the American Civil Liberties Union asked the full 11th Circuit to rehear and
reverse the panel's decision, but the court, without issuing a written response,
declined to reconsider the panel decision in Chandler v. James.

Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor said in a prepared statement that the
11th Circuit's Oct.1 decision was “a tremendous victory for the religious
freedom of public school students throughout the state.”

At a Christian Coalition gathering Oct. 2 in Washington, D.C., Pryor
described the prayer controversy in DeKalb County schools as a struggle against
“moral relativism – the notion that there are no universal or moral standards.”
He said that perspective was at odds with the “founding principles of this
nation” and fueled by “the exclusion of religious expression.” Pryor also
described DeMent's injunction as hostile toward religion.

Pamela Sumners, a Birmingham attorney who has led the ACLU in its fight
against school-sponsored religious activities since 1996, accused Pryor of
exaggerating the 11th Circuit's alteration of DeMent's injunction and said it
does not close the case. Sumners represents Michael Chandler, a former Dekalb
County school administrator who challenged the 1993 Alabama law that opened the
school doors to organized prayer.

“We won 90 percent of this case and we won a summary judgment that struck the
1993 prayer law down,” Sumners said. “The
11th Circuit's recent action only says it did not want to rehear the case. We
could either ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the 11th Circuit decision or
ask DeMent to reword his injunction.”

Sumners also defended DeMent's injunction, saying that Pryor's view of
religious liberty encompassed government recognition of majoritarian religions.
“If the price of liberty in America is having to put up with an established
religion, I want to know why it is always my clients who are paying the price,”
Sumners said.

Chandler's 1996 complaint against the state and Dekalb County schools accused
officials of encouraging and permitting Christian prayer in the classrooms under
the 1993 state law. In March 1997, DeMent found the law unconstitutional, noting
that “when prayer is introduced into a public school curriculum, students who
find the particular prayer, or prayer in general, offensive cannot express their
dissent by walking away or verbally objecting.”