Baptists Rip Ruling
by Kristen Campbell
November 20, 1997
Huntsville -- Alabama Baptists concluded their two-day state convention here by heaping figurative coals of fire on U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent's order setting guidelines for religious expression in public schools.
Messengers, the term Alabama Baptist Convention uses to refer to its delegates, adopted a resolution that mentioned DeMent by name in censuring his October order. Religious and social conservatives have criticized the Montgomery judge's order as an infringement on their religious freedom. The state Baptists met at Whitesburg Baptist Church in Huntsville.
The Baptist resolution expresses "support and appreciation to the leaders of the State of Alabama for the appeal challenging the over-broad and objectionable portions of the order."
Governor Fob James has denounced the judge and said issues of religion in public schools are not the business of federal courts. Attorney General Bill Pryor is appealing parts of DeMent's order that blocked vocal prayer in schools, classroom devotionals, graduation prayers, prayer over school intercoms, Bible readings at school-sponsored events and the distribution of Bibles near schools by members of Gideons International.
The Baptist resolution also calls upon churches, associations and the state convention to "provide training opportunities for our youth to instruct them in their constitutional rights and the expression of their Christian witness at school in appropriate ways."
It's unusual for such resolutions to mention people by name, said convention president Leon Ballard of York, Alabama, who was re-elected for a second term during the meeting.
"We have always dealt with issues and not personalities," said Ballard. "I would have preferred that we had not brought the name into it."
But messengers to this convention, he said, chose otherwise.
In discussion preceding the vote, some Baptists said they took DeMent's ruling personally, and therefore believed that he should be named.
Dale Wallace of Trussville, Alabama, the resolutions committee's chairman, said the committee simply sought to express general support for the appeal, not to become embroiled in a political debate. The resolution is not an endorsement of James, Wallace said. Instead, he said, it raises concerns about the freedom to voice religious speech.
"The separation of church and state does not mean a student, teacher or adult gives up the right to express religious views," he said.
But other Baptists disagreed with the resolution.
Ora Parr, a retired teacher who belongs to Huntsville's Highlands Baptist Church, said religious teaching should be left to parents and churches, not to public schools.
"We have to be careful that we don't turn our responsibilities over to the government," she said. "We need to get on with the spreadin' of the gospel instead of resolutin'.'"
Questioning the resolution's implications, Auburn University professor and messenger from Auburn's First Baptist Church Wayne Flynt told fellow delegates before the vote Wednesday that it did not represent the interpretation and stance that Baptists have traditionally taken regarding the separation of church and state.
"I do not think it's [the resolution] consistent with the '62 prayer ruling," Flynt said, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court decision that said the state of New York could not write a prayer and require every student in that state's public schools to say it at the beginning of each day.
"I do think this violates the separation of church and state," he said. But Baptists' decision to pass the resolution one he said was motivated by anger and misunderstanding did not surprise him.
"What dominates [the convention] now is the culture wars," Flynt said. "There's no debate about literalism in the Bible. They've moved on to political issues."
It's a move, Flynt said, that began in the 1980s.
This year, the tilt toward political conservatism became more evident with the meeting and formation of a new group, the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Alabama, or SBCOA. At a meeting Monday during the Alabama Baptist Pastors' Conference, more than 200 people attended a luncheon held for those interested in the fledgling organization.
By Wednesday afternoon, Steve Loggins, interim moderator for that organization and director of missions of the North Jefferson Baptist Association, said 80 had joined the group.
"I'm very pleased by the action of Alabama Baptists," Loggins said of the resolution. "It's not an issue of religious liberty; it's a matter of conscience. This was a spiritual issue."
More than 1,500 Baptists with voting privileges at the state convention also gave their endorsement to a statement that "support the replacement of the National Endowment for the Arts as the funding agency for the arts and the projects subsidized under the oversight of this organization [the NEA]."
But all of the resolutions, Ballard said, represent the viewpoints of only a fraction of the state's 1.1 million Baptists.
"I think the convention expressed itself the way the majority of messengers this morning felt," he said. "I'm not sure anybody can speak for all Alabama Baptists."
Other resolutions affirmed the public display of the Ten Commandments, expressed appreciation for the life and witness of the late Albert Lee Smith Jr., former chairman of the Southern Baptist Public Affairs Committee, and offered thanks to Whitesburg Baptist Church, the host congregation for this year's assembly.
A Tale Of Two Turkeys
School Prayer Order
by Conrad Goeringer
November 20, 1997
One of the most striking features in the controversy about religion and government in Alabama has been the petulant attitude of public officials, such as Governor Fob James and state Attorney General Bill Pryor. Both have been vehement supporters of Judge Roy Moore, the "Ten Commandments" jurist; and they have voiced support for classroom walkouts and other protests to Judge Ira DeMent's decision striking down the state's 1993 school prayer law. James has threatened on numerous occasions to mobilize the Alabama national guard, state police, and even the University of Alabama football squad if necessary in order to "resist" any "federal" ruling. Last month, James even went so far as to send a 35-page missive to Judge DeMent urging him to uphold the state's prayer law; James claimed that federal courts had no jurisdiction in the matter, and that the U.S. Constitution did not apply to the actions of individual states.
Mr. Pryor, while manifesting a somewhat greater and more informed understanding of legal history, doggedly persists in using state resources on behalf of the religion-in-government cause while defending Judge Moore and working in tandem with Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice to challenge DeMent's recent decision.
Observers of the "Alabama prayer war" have noted the increasingly defiant and belligerent tone of those supporting Moore and public expressions of religiosity. During last April's "Save Our Commandments" rally on the steps of the State Capitol in Montgomery, amidst a sea of Confederate flags and tablet-shaped placards, the crowd continually broke into spontaneous chants of "Tear down the wall!" -- a reference to the "wall of separation" referred to by Thomas Jefferson which separates government and religion. Equally defiant has been Governor James, who continues to speak of "total resistance" to any possible federal ruling which might put an end to courtroom or school praying, or displays of the Commandments.
James continued to stoke the popular fires of indignation on Monday, at an otherwise-innocent appearing event which has become a bit of a tradition in Alabama since it began in 1948 -- the annual turkey presentation where a live bird (nicknamed "Clyde" ) is presented to the government by the Alabama Poultry and Egg Association. The fundamentalist Christian governor, fresh from a taxpayer-funded visit to"the Holy Land," couldn't resist the temptation of launching yet another verbal salvo at Judge Ira DeMent. While the 62-pound gobbler fluttered his wings during the presentation, James mused, "Clyde says he doesn't know about any of those other turkeys but he's going to say a pre-game prayer" before Saturday's Auburn-Alabama football game.
Wrap Up Convention
by Yvonne White
The Huntsville Times
November 20, 1997
For 175 years, Alabama Baptists have been gathering for an annual convention.
For most of that 175-year history, Alabama Baptists have disagreed over many things. This week was no different as 1,530 messengers (delegates) came to Huntsville to conduct the business of the state's largest denomination during a two-day state convention at Whitesburg Baptist Church which concluded Wednesday.
The messengers re-elected the state president, Dr. Leon Ballard, by acclamation, but engaged in a highly emotional discussion over what to say about the current controversy over prayer in public schools. They eventually passed a compromise resolution that supports efforts to appeal last month's federal court order spelling out what religious activity is and isn't permitted in schools.
The resolution, passed by a wide margin, was a combination of three others submitted to the convention's Committee on Resolutions. The Baptists also voted nearly unanimously to support the display of the Ten Commandments in public places and to urge the federal government to replace the National Endowment for the Arts, which has come under fire from religious groups because it has supported controversial art work.
"I think the convention expressed itself in a way the majority of the messengers present felt," Ballard said afterward. I'm not sure anybody or anyone at the convention can speak for any Alabama Baptists."
The resolution specifically referred to U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent's ruling. Ballard had asked that the specific reference be removed from the resolution because traditionally we have always dealt with issues and not personalities.
"I would have preferred we not bring a personality into it," he said. This convention chose to make a statement. If I had a choice, it would have been different."
Ballard said he believes the messengers think the federal government is bullying them and saying they can't pray. I'm not of that opinion. We live in a pluralistic society with different beliefs and we don't want to force what we believe on others. That's where I'm uncomfortable."
Dale Wallace, chair of the resolutions committee, said many Alabama Baptists would go much farther than the resolution does. We're obviously not going to agree on everything, but we were not going to put a lot of extraneous material in there which didn't relate to the order."
Dr. Hugh Tobias, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Madison, said he had not read the ruling. He made a motion to table the resolution until all messengers had the opportunity to read the federal court order so they wouldn't vote out of ignorance." His motion failed.
The Rev. Charles Freeman, pastor of Huntsville's Hillwood Baptist Church, said it was time for Baptists to take a stand for God.
"It seems like our convention has chosen to be more politically correct than spiritually correct," he said. "I'm more worried about offending God (than man)."
Ora Parr, a retired school teacher and messenger from Huntsville's Highlands Baptist Church, vehemently opposed the resolution on religious expression in public schools and was also troubled by the resolution on the Ten Commandments.
"How many of us have daily pray altars with our children?" she asked the messengers. The responsibility of teaching our children about the gospel should not be with teachers, but in the home and church. I don't even have a display of the Ten Commandments in my home or in my church. I feel we need to get on with spreading the gospel and not resoluting."
Wayne Flint, from East Gadsden Baptist Church, said the resolution is not about school-sanctioned prayer or forced prayer, but about religious freedom."
Chris Doss, from Vestavia Hills Baptist Church, cautioned the messengers about passing the resolution. I think we need to be very careful in defending our own liberty so we do not tread on the beliefs of others," he said. Students can pray voluntary prayers and can express themselves in religious matters and others as long as they are not intrusive to the rights of others."
During the discussion, one messenger was overheard saying, I wonder what Jesus would do?"
The person sitting next to him replied, Jesus wouldn't be here. He'd be out doing his work."
Ballard, pastor of York Baptist Church in west central Alabama, disagreed with the assessment.
"I'm very pleased with the way we walked through the convention," he said. I think we did about the best we could. I think God's presence was very much here and I think Jesus' was here, too."
In addition to Ballard's election as president, James Buddy" Gray, pastor of Hunter Street Baptist Church in Hoover, was elected first vice president, and Dr. Tom Whatley, pastor of Woodward Avenue Baptist in Muscle Shoals, was elected second vice-president.
Ten Commandments Fight
Returns To Charlotte
by Conrad Goeringer
November 21, 1997
A scheme to display the Ten Commandments in the Charlotte, North Carolina Government Center complex is back on the city council agenda for next Monday evening, November 24. Local American Atheist activist Jim Senyszyn, who has spoken out against the proposal, is urging local non-believers and state-church separation activists to show up and speak out during the audience call; the meeting is slated to begin at 7 p.m. "You can even bring signs inside the council chambers and hold them up when cameras pan the audience," says Jim, who plans on addressing the council and is trying to line up other speakers as well.
Religion In Government -- By Any Means Necessary
Charlotte is just one of the locations across the nation where "culture war" scraps over the role of religious ritual and symbols in government institutions have erupted. In August, city council member Don Reid announced a play to display the Ten Commandments, and during one public meeting asked, "Isn't about time that officials in this city shouted from the hilltops ... that this country was build on Judaeo-Christian principles?"
The mayor and several other council members disagreed, and the measure was postponed until after the November elections. Reid got more bad news, though, from the Charlotte city attorney who suggested that the Decalogue display probably would not pass constitutional scrutiny.
Reid says that he was inspired by the spreading efforts of religious groups to have the Commandments displayed in government buildings; the councilman added that he also received motivation from evangelist Luis Palau, an activist preacher who encourages his followers to pray in public and proclaim that the Christian religion is the basis of American society. Reid told the Charlotte (North Carolina) Observer newspaper that he was encouraged by other events, such as the July 22 actions of another county officials to nailed a copy of the Ten Commandments to the wall of a government office building despite a lawsuit to prevent that action. He has also cited the case of Etowah County, Alabama Judge Roy Moore who has attracted national support for his defiant stance of posting the Decalogue and opening court with a Baptist prayer, despite a "cease and desist" order.
Like many who are urging governments to display the Commandments, Reid points to the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. as evidence that the practice is constitutional. But the court depiction shows Moses handing down stone tablets with Roman numerals; the actual text of the Commandments is not listed. Reid also suggests that the Decalogue display, whether at public or private expense in a government building, would not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which he says is only meant to prevent establishment of a state religion. He told the Observer newspaper, "Some will say it's a violation of church and state [sic], and to them I say poppycock. How can anyone, regardless of his or her religion, object to the Ten Commandments being placed in a public building?
Reid has the support of two other area officials, Mecklenburg County commissioners Joel Carter and Bill James. Carter declared, "Those people who would oppose the hanging of the Ten Commandments in a public building are basically ungodly type [sic] of people."
Senyszyn Takes Action
Jim Senyszyn has launched his own campaign to oppose Reid's Ten Commandments scheme. Mr. Reid now wishes the Decalogue to displayed in the Government Center -- a facility shared by both the city and county offices -- as part of a "fresco" which would include "other themes" including depictions of historic documents like the state and federal constitutions. This ploy would supposedly "secularize" the Ten Commandments display.
But his effort may not succeed. Senyszyn reports that support for Reid's proposal could be soft, although council members opposing the effort "may have cold feet in terms of speaking out." He added that after conversations with several representatives, "one assured me that the proposal is going to be voted down."
Jim isn't taking anything for granted, though, and is urging local separations to attend the Monday meeting and, if possible, speak out against the proposal. Those interested in doing so should call 336-2247, the council office which schedules those wishing to address that body.
Christian Group Wants
Back on Grounds of Indiana Statehouse
by Conrad Goeringer
November 21, 1997
The Christian Family Association of Ohio and Indiana is asking Indiana lawmakers to replace a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the state capitol which was vandalized in 1991 and then put into storage.
The state CFA chapters say they will be collecting donations to replace the monument which was erected by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1958. Supporters of these displays often claim that since they are erected with private funds, the fact that they might sit upon public land does not result in "excessive entanglement" between government and religion.
CFA has also been conducting a campaign in several states advocating display of the Ten Commandments in government buildings. Last week in Hendricks County, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the local commissioners after that body approved a resolution to display the Decalogue in public buildings.
That lawsuit could delay any action in the proposal to reconstruct the Ten Commandments display on the ground of the state capitol, though. Glenn Lawrence, at attorney with the Indiana Department of Administration, told the Indianapolis Star newspaper that no action will be taken on the CFA proposal until the Hendricks County lawsuit is resolved.
Nativity Scene Dropped
From Christmas Play
by Guy Busby and Avani Patel
November 26, 1997
Bon Secour -- Marie Carver said she's not certain when the tradition began of closing the Swift School Christmas play with a nativity scene.
There was no nativity when she was a pupil at the school 70 years ago. When she became a teacher in 1942, though, it had already been going on for several years.
It won't go on this Christmas season. It was canceled in recent days because of uncertainty surrounding a recent federal judge's decision on religious expression in schools.
"I think it's just terrible," Mrs. Carver, who retired as Swift principal in 1984, said Tuesday. "Everybody that I've talked to is upset about it. We always ended up every Christmas play with a manger scene. All the children would come out, and they'd sing 'Silent Night' and other songs."
In recent years, the school's kindergarten pupils performed the nativity scene. Two 5-year-olds dressed as Mary and Joseph held a doll representing the baby Jesus, and they were surrounded by classmates dressed as shepherds and angels, according to Principal Linda Capps.
That was before U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent's October 30 ruling prohibiting public school officials from sponsoring religious activities on campuses.
After the ruling was issued, Mrs. Capps said she called Larry Newton, Baldwin County superintendent of education, and asked if the school program should include the nativity scene.
System officials decided the scene should not be part of the play.
"I'm assuming that the principals in the school are aware of the court order as well, but I would assume that they are aware that those types of activities are more or less in limbo at the present time until we get some direction from t he attorney," Robert Wills, a school board member and Bay Minette lawyer, said Tuesday.
"We have been informed by our attorneys that the nativity scene should not b e permitted."
Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor said he felt DeMent's injunction applies only to DeKalb County.
"In my judgment, they are in no danger of being held in contempt of court, a lthough I can't really comment for certain unless I knew more about what they are doing in south Baldwin County," Pryor said. "But you have to worry about precedent and how this might affect future activities like those in other areas."
He said the ruling is causing concerns like those in Baldwin County throughout the state.
"That's why I'm trying to get a stay of Judge DeMent's injunction," Pryor said. "Read literally, it would prohibit you from even singing 'Silent Night.'"
Stuart Roth, a lawyer in Mobile with the American Center for Law and Justice of Alabama, said that while the order does not affect counties other than DeKalb , he isn't surprised by the Baldwin school board's action.
"It's the chilling effect of the court's order," he said. "We've heard of a general reaction throughout the state by various school boards and school districts."
For example, he said he had heard that a Dothan school had disallowed Christmas songs and songs involving religious content during the holiday assembly that takes place in December.
In Bon Secour, founded by French colonists in the 18th century, the Baldwin board's decision worried residents in a community where traditions run deep.
Cindy Taylor of Bon Secour, mother of a fourth-grade student at Swift, said t hat after parents learned Tuesday of the decision to cancel the nativity, many decided to keep their children out of the play.
"A lot of parents aren't going to let their kids be in it this year," she said. "This has a lot of people really mad that they weren't told about it."
"We're all really upset about it," said Betsy Lipscomb, Mrs. Carver's daughter. "It's a real let-down for the children."
Mrs. Lipscomb said she remembers taking part in the scene herself as a child.
"I did it. My children did it. My grandchildren did it," she said.
Karen Nelson, vice president of the Swift PTA, said her children are also not the first generation of their family to take part in the event.
"I did it when I was a kid, we all did," said Mrs. Nelson, who attended the school through the seventh grade in 1977.
"It always ended with the nativity, which is the whole point of Christmas."
Charlotte City Council
Votes 10-1 To Continue
Current Policy Of Not
Displaying Religious Symbols
by Conrad Goeringer
November 26, 1997
In an overwhelming vote of 10 to 1 the Charlotte city council voted Monday night to continue its current policy of not displaying religious symbols, in particular, the Ten Commandments. Only the original sponsor of the Ten Commandment display, Councilman Don Reid, voted against the motion.
American Atheist activist Jim Senyszyn spoke to the council for three minutes, distributing the American Atheist pamphlet "Morality Without Religion" to council members and talking through some of its points with them. Other speakers against the display included ACLU attorney George Daly, and a Baptist lawyer who both spoke very impressively.
Christian right council members, while conceding defeat and voting against the display, gave several falsified quotes from the founding fathers and promised to hold a seminar to put forward their revisionist version of American history. Reid promised to fight another day and keep the issue alive.
First Amendment Wins
in Charlotte as
Is Rejected by Council
by Wayne Aiken
North Carolina Director, American Atheists
November 26, 1997
At the Monday night, November 25th meeting of the Charlotte (North Carolina) City Council, a proposal by council member Don Reid to display the Ten Commandments on the walls of the City and County government building was rejected by a 10-1 vote, with Reid casting the sole ballot in favor.
Reid's proposal was to include the Decalogue within a mix of other legal documents including the U.S. and North Carolina Constitutions; his sudden interest in general legal history came about when his original proposal, to display only the Ten Commandments by themselves, was deemed unconstitutional by city attorney Mac McCarley. Despite the attempt to hide the religious display within a broader historical context, debate focused squarely on the Ten Commandment display itself.
Citizen input was mixed and evenly balanced. Local American Atheist member Jim Senyszyn distributed copies of his widely-printed editorial article, "Why the Charlotte City Council should oppose a Proposal for Ten Commandments Fresco," which gives a number of legal, historical and ethical arguments against the Decalogue. Also distributed, as well as the topic of his presentation, was a short essay on "Morality and Ethics Without Religion." Since it is often claimed that posting the Ten Commandments will function as a magic wand to make people moral, this attempted to demonstrate that ethics are not necessarily rooted in religious belief. Other speakers, nearly all from the religious perspective, were split. Predictably, a handful ranted on the "Christian nation" and the "Ten Commandments are the basis of law" themes, liberally sprinkled with threats of hellfire. Others were more pragmatic, with a Baptist lawyer delivering a particularly eloquent defense of state-church separation from ethical and constitutional perspectives.
The council members, in their open deliberations, concentrated on their own personal religious beliefs, and openly attacked the idea of state-church separation. Although all speakers except Reid voiced opposition to the display, most did so not out of their constitutional responsibilities, but on their own theological beliefs, or the question of whether such displays were the "best" ways of accomplishing moral goals. The disturbing dismissal and outright attack on First Amendment-mandated government neutrality was guided largely by the historical revisionism of David Barton, with council members citing quotes directly from his works, "The Myth of Separation" and "America's Godly heritage." These works do to American history essentially what the creationists do to evolution; by misquoting, quoting out of context, and selectively ignoring refuting evidence, the false notion is given that the Founding Fathers intended laws and society to be based on the Christian religion. Barton has become widely popular in religious right circles, with his material becoming directly involved as arguments in the political process.
Councilman Don Reid maintained that this is a "country based on Judeao-Christian values." He defended the Ten Commandments as a code that allows us to live peacefully "worshiping as we please" -- despite the glaring fact that the first Commandment specifically forbids such religious freedom. Councilman Sellers went along the more familiar moral-decay-and-social-disintegration route, blaming crime, immorality, and the recently reported rise in the popularity of pornographic movies, on lack of religious belief. Although he eventually admitted that he opposed the display because the Bible didn't command it, he made familiar attacks on separation, such as the claim that the word "separation" is not in the Constitution. He also cited Barton's fabricated "quotes" from many founders.
Councilman Jackson continued this attack, claiming that religion is the basis of government, and that Christianity serves as the basis of common law. Again, he defended this with more direct quotes from Barton, saying that "separation should be abandoned" as a flawed legal fabrication. Jackson went on to say that he is donating $500 to sponsor local seminars and lectures on this revisionist history, most likely by Barton's organization, the "WallBuilders."
In addition to Jim Senyszyn and myself, fellow activist John Miller attended the meeting in order to monitor the proceedings and protest Reid's proposal on the Commandments. All local Charlotte media were given press releases, and the protest signs in the audiences attracted attention from TV cameras. Despite the importance attached to such displays by religious activists, though, surprisingly few people attended the council meeting to express support. Only one sign advocated the display. By the time the council reached this item on the agenda, the seats in the audience were largely empty.
In the end, the Charlotte City Council voted against the Commandments display in a 10-1 decision; that proposal, framed by member Ella Scarborough, though, continues the current practice of opening council meetings with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. Afterward, Reid remarks that "this battle will be fought again," and expressed his hope that future proposals would contain similar "culture warfare" issues. With the current ideological campaigns underway to rewrite American history and law, those future battles are far from certain to end the same way.
Freedom Wins 10-1
Council Vote Affirms,
Our Religious Heritage
Charlotte Observer lead editorial page 22A
November 26, 1997:
One of the things for which we should be thankful this Thanksgiving season was the City Council's overwhelming affirmation of religious freedom Monday night, rejecting Don Reid's proposal to display the Ten Commandments at the Government Center.
Listening to the long and tiresome debate, you'd have thought the issue was whether this nation was founded by religious people and based on religious principles. Speaker after speaker, form the audience and on the council, quoted religious references from the admonitions of the founding fathers and their successors over the years. It was as if the speakers believed the influence of religion in the founding principles of the republic permitted, justified, or even required, the display of the Ten Commandments in the halls of government.
Most council members understood that was not the case -- precisely the opposite, in fact.
This holiday, with its images of pilgrims thanking God for the harvest, reminds us that some of the early settlers came here to escape government-established religion. From bitter experience they knew their freedom to worship according to their own conscience was not secure where there was a state religion, or state approval of one religion over another.
Out of that heritage, the founders declared that government could neither establish religion nor prohibit its free exercise. Without that protection, for example, Christians' right to practice Christianity might depend someday on their ability to win a majority of seats on a local, state or national legislative body. If this City Council can post the Ten Commandments, some future City Council can take them down and put up the sacred texts of some other religion, or an atheist manifesto.
The city attorney has said it would be unconstitutional for the council to post the Ten Commandments. The remaining issue was whether, if the council could find a way around the constitutional problem -- perhaps by including secular documents in the display -- that would be a good thing to do. All but one council member said no, and they were right.
Seriously religious people do not compromise their religious beliefs, nor should they. That's why religious conflicts are so difficult to resolve in the political arena, where diversity is the rule and compromise is a respectable and necessary technique of governance.
Sometimes those conflicts are unavoidable, as on such issues as abortion, capital punishment or war. But it is unconscionable to incite religious controversies in government when there is no compelling issue at stake.
Mr. Reid, trying to put the best face on a 10-1 defeat, insisted he had done a good thing by raising the issue and starting a good discussion. What he really did, whatever his intentions, was create unnecessary conflict among people of various religions. Consider the discussion Monday night: Addressing a City Council that includes a Jew and a Muslim, at least two speakers warned council members, in effect, that they would face eternal damnation if they failed to vote in favor of Mr. Reid's "Christian" proposal.
That kind of discussion is neither healthy nor constructive in a community where exploding diversity challenges us to be respectful of ethnic and religious traditions other than our own.
NOTE: The Charlotte Observer is on the web at: http://www.charlotte.com, but has no archives posted.
Call for School Prayer
by Brian Cabell
November 27, 1997
Rainsville, Alabama (CNN) -- Hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Rainsville, Alabama, on Thanksgiving Day to plead for the return of prayer in public schools.
The march was in reaction to a decision last month by U.S. District Court Judge Ira DeMent, who ordered an end to school-sponsored religious activities, such as prayers during morning announcements and at school events.
While DeMent's ruling came from a case originating in DeKalb County, in Alabama's northeast corner, it is now considered a legal standard that applies to the whole state. And that doesn't sit well with many people here who believe DeMent's decision tramples on their freedom of religion -- and that, because it isn't forced on students, school prayer is constitutional.
"It's God's will that this nation that was founded as a nation under God would once again become one nation under God, and that we would put God back at the center, not only of our schools, but at the center of our society," says John Holkem, a school prayer supporter.
DeMent's ruling was the latest in a string of controversial decisions on church-state separation issues in northeast Alabama.
A judge in Gadsden, Roy Moore, has been ordered to stop conducting prayers in his courtroom and displaying the Ten Commandments. That led Alabama Governor Fob James, a supporter of prayer in public schools, to vow to use state troopers, if necessary, to allow Moore to continue the prayers.
In March, DeMent struck down a law that required schools to allow voluntary student-initiated prayers at school events, saying it created excessive state entanglement in religion.
In November, nearly 60 middle school students were suspended for two days in Albertville after they walked out of class and marched on City Hall to protest DeMent's ruling.
Where the protest movement will go next is uncertain, given that recent court rulings have gone against the protesters' position. But opponents of DeMent's rulings say they have the power of protest -- and the power of prayer.
Hundreds Protest DeMent
School Prayer Ruling
by Conrad Goeringer
December 1, 1997
On Thursday, hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Rainsville, Alabama in support of the state's unconstitutional school prayer law which was recently struck down by Judge Ira DeMent. Enacted in 1993, the law permitted "student led" prayer during official school activities including graduation, athletic events, and even the beginning of classroom instructions.
That legal decision has elicited considerable opposition from elected officials, including Governor Fob James and state Attorney General Bill Pryor. The state has deputized Jay Sekulow, a political operative for Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, to pursue a legal appeal to DeMent's ruling, and there have been protest meetings and even walk-outs by students at some of the schools. One school prayer supporter told media at Thursday's event, "It's God's will that this nation that was founded as a nation under God become one nation under God, and that we would put God back at the center, not only of our schools, but at the center of our society."
Whew! That's quite a linguistic feat, managing to mention "God" four times in the same sentence, but it says something about the vehemence of those supporting the prayer-in-government movement.
CNN notes, "Where the protest movement will go next is uncertain, given that recent court rulings have gone against the protesters position." We share that puzzlement as well. Some have suggested the distinct possibility of violence erupting over the school prayer issue, and the related controversy surrounding Etowah County Judge Roy Moore, who posts a copy of the Ten Commandments above his courtroom bench and begins court with a Baptist invocation. Certainly, the level of rhetoric has escalated; both Governor James and Attorney General Pryor have, to varying degrees, urged opposition and "resistance" to Judge DeMent's order. We're told that inflammatory rhetoric is easy to find on various talk-radio shows across the state as well.
With or without violence, though, the "Alabama Prayer War" is sure to be used as an excuse to support the Religious Freedom Amendment still lurking on Capitol Hill which would vitiate the Establishment Clause and introduce a wide range of religious affairs into government. Indeed, "Christian civil disobedience" over like school prayer, abortion, "religious rights" and related issues could become an icon of future political protest as we move into the last days of the twentieth century. Frustrated in efforts to reconstitute the secular society through the courts, possibly unable to obtain results in legislatures, Christian "prayer warriors" may be tempted to become more militant and aggressive in seeking to establish "one nation under God."
Moore Seeks Quicker
from Court in Prayer Case
by Larry Mundinger (with Conrad Goeringer)
December 5, 1997
Judge Roy Moore, the Alabama county jurist who has attracted national attention for displaying the Ten Commandments in his courtroom and beginning proceedings with a Baptist invocation, has asked the state Supreme Court to rule on his appeal regarding the constitutionality of those practices.
In decisions handed down in November, 1996 and February, 1997, judge Charles Price of Montgomery, Alabama ruled that Moore's activities were unconstitutional. Following those rulings, Moore picked up the support of national religious groups like the Christian Coalition, as well as politicians like Alabama Governor Fob James and State Attorney General Bill Pryor. The Moore case is also being linked to a recent controversy over the state's 1993 school prayer law which has been struck down by federal Judge Ira DeMent.
Moore appealed Price's ruling to the Alabama State Supreme Court. In a motion filed on Tuesday, Moore asked the court to accelerate its deliberations and establish a fixed date for oral arguments, saying that rulings about prayer in government "continue to have a chilling effect on the public acknowledgment of God in public places by both private citizens and public servants." The motion also criticized remarks reportedly made by Supreme Court Justice Mark Kennedy, who in a speech made earlier this year mentioned that Moore "probably wants to be the King of Siam one day, or a U.S. Senator." Moore's motion claimed that prompt action by the state court would "remove the apparent temptation" of judges to remark on details in the case. The brief also charged that Kennedy discussed the Save Our Commandments rally held earlier this year on the steps of the state capitol; it quotes Judge Kennedy as saying, "We need those same 10,000 people who gathered on the steps of the capitol to live the Ten Commandments."
Alabama Governor Tells Kids:
Fight Separation, Sing Christmas Carols
by Conrad Goeringer
December 8, 1997
The "Alabama prayer war" continues.
In a state where elected officials are calling for resistance to a federal court ruling striking down as unconstitutional a law which permitted prayer in public schools, Alabama Governor Fob James has now called upon students to hold Christmas holiday events, and sing religious hymns such as "Joy to the World" and "O' Little Town of Bethlehem."
Last Thursday, James called a hastily-organized press conference to announce his continued opposition to court rulings prohibiting religious involvement in government, including the posting of Ten Commandments displays in state buildings, invocations at public meetings and prayer or other religion-linked activity in the public school. He told reporters that he would use the "full authority" of his office to encourage and support students who wish to sing Christmas carols during school plays and other official events.
It was yet another indication that the religion-in-government issue remains the focus of state politics, and an issue dividing Alabamians. The Birmingham Post-Herald noted on Friday, "If Governor Fob James is running for reelection next year, his issue seems clearly defined: The practice of religion in public schools."
The latest controversy over religion in schools arose on Wednesday when attorneys for the Dothan Board of Education said that religious songs could not be performed at any school event under a ruling issued by federal Judge Ira DeMent. DeMent has struck down the state's controversial 1993 school prayer law which provided for a wide range of "student initiated" religious activity, including prayers during official events (such as athletic contests) and in classes. But Jim Holland, the school board chairman, informed officials and teachers that they could proceed with whatever Christmas programs had been scheduled even if they included religious content.
James told media that the issue of state-church separation "is probably the most important -- not probably -- it is the most important issue of the day." He went on to echo his claim that Judge DeMent's ruling was "illegal" and "not grounded in the Constitution and needs to be defended against [sic] in every way."
He also challenged anyone "to show me where ... the Constitution of the United States or the Alabama Constitution prohibits the acknowledgement of God in public places..." James then discussed the 34-page letter he had written to Judge DeMent prior to his decision; the governor argued that the Bill of Rights and the Constitution did not apply to individual states in matters of religious exercise.
"Proceed with Christmas as it had traditionally been practiced in this great state," James declared. He described Christian religious carols such as "Silent Night" and "Joy to the World" as "great songs that are germane to the very core of our being..."
In Baldwin county, school authorities announced that they would proceed with a planned Christmas school pageant which would use symbols like Santa Clause, and then have kindergarten-age children in a tableau depicting the Christian Nativity.
On a related front, Judge Ira DeMent has encountered so much resistance directed at his order to end prayer and other religious ritual in Alabama schools (specifically DeKalb county) that he will select a "monitor" to check compliance in the district and handle complaints from students or parents. County officials have submitted the names of Oliver Thomas, Charles Haynes and Mirian Drennan for consideration by DeMent. The judge could select one of them by January when the compliance monitoring is expected to begin.
Rev. Oliver Thomas is an official with the National Council of Churches and a lawyer; while supporting the essentials in DeMent's ruling, it should be noted that Thomas organized NCC's campaign to preserve the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Haynes is a senior scholar in religious studies at Vanderbilt University and holds a degree in theological studies. Ms. Drennan is education coordinator for the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt, and both Haynes and Thomas are associated with that institution.
James and other religion-in-schools supporters have branded the monitors as "prayer police."