Oct 30, 1997

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has hailed a sweeping federal district court order barring school-sanctioned religious activities in Alabama public schools.

"All over the country, school boards are coming under increasing pressure by groups such as the Christian Coalition to implement religious worship in public schools," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "This ruling sends a timely reminder that America's public schools are for education, not indoctrination."

Americans United filed the Chandler v. James lawsuit on behalf of Michael Chandler, an assistant principal in the DeKalb County, Ala., public schools. The suit challenges the state's school prayer law and a broad array of school-sponsored religious activities in DeKalb County and the nearby city of Talladega. (Earlier this year, Talladega officials agreed to a settlement and suspended the unconstitutional activities.)

The Oct. 29 ruling, handed down by U.S. District Court Judge Ira DeMent, issues a permanent injunction forbidding Gov. Fob James and other state and local education officials from enforcing Alabama's 1993 "student-initiated" prayer law or taking any other steps to promote religious worship in the public schools.

DeMent also enjoined all school-organized or officially sanctioned religious activities in DeKalb County classrooms or over the school's public address system, including vocal prayer and Bible reading. He barred invocations or other prayers at assemblies, sports events, graduation ceremonies or other school occasions.

The judge also forbade the distribution of Gideon Bibles or other religious literature at schools, including the throwing of Bibles through school bus windows.

To ensure compliance, the court ordered the DeKalb County schools to hold in-service teacher training on the ruling and church-state law and announced plans to appoint a monitor to visit the schools and ensure that the ruling's provisions are obeyed.

Plaintiff Chandler says he made countless attempts over a 10-year period to bring DeKalb schools into compliance with court rulings concerning religion in public schools but that officials refused. Relying on legal help from Americans United and the Alabama branch of the Americans Civil Liberties Union, he filed suit to end the coercive religious practices.

"This is a very sweeping ruling," said Americans United Legal Director Steven K. Green. "The judge clearly means to remind Gov. James and DeKalb school officials that the church-state separation provisions of the U.S. Constitution apply in Alabama."

Gov. James and allies in the state have suggested that the Constitution's Bill of Rights does not apply to the states and that Alabama is free to do as it pleases on religious matters.