Loss of school tradition needn’t tear apart county

Sunday, August 16, 1998

Northern Alabama can be pretty hot in the middle of August — and I don't just mean the weather. Folks in DeKalb County are still steamed about a federal court injunction aimed at ending school-sponsored religious practices.

Last week the First Amendment Center sent me and religious-liberty attorney Oliver Thomas back to DeKalb to give teachers and administrators another round of in-service training ordered by the court. While we were there, the local superintendent also asked us to lead a community forum to give parents and other citizens an opportunity to discuss how to move beyond the anger generated by the court order.

But not everyone wants a dialogue. When we arrived for the forum, a group of pastors were holding a press conference in front of the building. They called for a boycott of the meeting, saying that “no one wants to hear” what the First Amendment Center has to say.

Fortunately, a small group had gathered inside who did want to hear—and to speak—about how to find common ground. The leaders of the boycott claimed that they had kept the numbers down. But more likely most people are worn out by all the shouting and have gone back to canning tomatoes and other activities more normal for the dog days of August.

Those who spoke up at the meeting spoke from their hearts. One fellow, a Gideon, was upset that he could no longer give out Bibles in the school as he had been doing for many years. Another man, a parent of seven children, was afraid that the prohibition against student-led prayer at school events would lead to more restrictions on the right of his children to pray at other times. The strongest emotion at the meeting—even stronger than the anger at the judge's order—was the sense of loss. Old and meaningful traditions—prayers at graduation, Bibles given out in school—were being taken away.

In spite of the anger and hurt (and in the absence of air conditioning on a muggy Alabama night), everyone remained remarkably calm and civil. People just wanted to be heard and to be understood. Several leaders of the opposition to the judge's order stood up to say that they don't want to coerce anybody. “Jesus didn't force anybody to accept him,” said one parent, “and we don't want to either.”

By the end of the meeting there seemed to be some agreement in the room about how to go forward. It won't help to keep fighting about the court injunction; the only solution is to stop arguing about what the schools can't do and begin to focus on what they can do to accommodate religious convictions.

The superintendent and the school board are ready to take the next step. Soon they'll put together a task force that will create religious-liberty policies for the DeKalb County schools. All of the people we spoke with, on both sides of the debate, expressed a readiness and willingness to be at the table. Once the community sees that, under current law, there are many ways for students to express their faith in school—from distribution of literature to forming religious clubs—the loss of the old traditions may not seem as great.

Judges and lawyers won't always be so involved in DeKalb County schools. Because of courageous leadership by the superintendent and the school board, the court will soon be satisfied that the teachers and administrators are doing their best to fulfill the requirements of the law.

Without its own policies and practices, however, the school district will continue to lurch from crisis to crisis. Only a sound and fair policy, developed and supported by the community, can finally end the confusion and conflict. If the demagogues will get out the way, the citizens of DeKalb County are ready to find common ground.