In some ways, visiting West Monroe High School in Ouachita Parish, La., is like stepping into a time warp.
School officials in this region of north central Louisiana have simply refused to abide by the U.S. Supreme Court's rulings barring state-sponsored prayer in public schools. Every Monday, a student recites a Christian prayer over the loudspeaker. Vocal prayer takes place in other classes, and some teachers hang Christian posters in their classrooms.
All of this is done with the consent and approval of the system's top school officials. "We have always prayed at football games and at school," Ouachita Parish (County) School Superintendent Lanny Johnson said recently. "And we will probably keep doing it until some judge tells us to stop."
The day when a judge makes that pronouncement may be coming soon. Last December attorneys with Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana filed a lawsuit in federal court to put an end to school-sponsored prayer in the parish's schools. A federal court heard arguments in the case last month, and a decision is expected soon.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two families in West Monroe who say their children are tired of being subjected to officially sanctioned worship at the high school and junior high school. According to reports received by Americans United, one student who declined to pray was labeled an "atheist" and a "devil worshipper" by fellow students. Another family noted that the religious observances are always fundamentalist Protestant in character. (Unlike heavily Catholic southern Louisiana, the northern region of the state is predominantly Baptist.)
Americans United and the ACLU say it's a shame this dispute had to end up in court but note that the recalcitrant attitude of school officials choked off other options. The organizations point out that one of the dissident parents tried to resolve the matter by contacting school officials once she found out prayers were taking place in school. However, her telephone call to Johnson was ignored. The parent contacted civil liberties lawyers who wrote a letter to school officials, warning them that the practices are unconstitutional. It too was ignored.
Unable to get satisfaction or even a response from the school officials Americans United and the local ACLU decided to join forces and file the Doe v. Ouachita Parish School Board lawsuit.
School officials have made their position clear: They have no intention of following the Supreme Court's rulings banning school-sponsored devotions. "Prayer has been a part of this country's heritage forever," Principal Ernest "Buddy" Reed of West Monroe High told the Ouachita Citizen last December. "The community fully supports this, and we're not going to change the direction or expectations for our school and we're certainly not going to back down from the ACLU."
Several days later, members of the school board voted unanimously to fight the lawsuit. "We have become complacent in letting various groups erode some of our rights and freedoms over the years," charged Greg Manley, the board's vice president. "I feel the forefathers founded this great country on godly principles and on something that God was needed in our society and in our school system. The bottom line is not what I, you or a judge think. It's what the students think."
Days later Manley sounded an even more defiant note, telling the Monroe News-Star, "We are looking forward to the opportunity for the people to show their support for keeping student-led prayer in the Ouachita Parish School system. We did not create the lawsuit. The ACLU did. But the ACLU can rest assured that we are going to use all resources available to make sure that we keep student-led prayer in the Ouachita Parish School system."
Manley, Reed and other officials in the school system frequently argue that the prayers are permissible because they are "student-led." But an audiotape of a typical prayer session indicated clear school involvement. On the tape, Reed is heard urging all teachers and students to "please join us now for our prayer and pledge." He then says, "Bow with me." The voice of a student is then heard reciting the prayer, which is replete with references to "the Lord."
During a CBS News documentary on school prayer, Chad Pilcher, a student who favors the school's policy, insisted that students of other faiths would be permitted to recite their prayers over the loudspeaker as well. In fact, the prayers are always recited by members of the Fellowship of Christian Students and are fundamentalist Christian in character. One Catholic student told CBS she has never heard a non-fundamentalist prayer recited.
Attorneys with Americans United argue that in their quest to keep official prayer, school administrators in the parish are being aided and abetted by Louisiana lawmakers. They note that last summer the Democrat-controlled legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill designed to reinstate organized prayer, a measure that was later signed into law by the state's Republican governor, Mike Foster.
The bill altered an existing school prayer statute in Louisiana that permitted silent prayer or meditation every day by removing the word "silent." During deliberations over the bill, Rep. Cynthia Willard (D-New Orleans), the measure's sponsor, and other backers forthrightly admitted that they wanted to clear the way for vocal prayer in school every day. Americans United has asked the federal district court to declare the Louisiana law unconstitutional and also stop the specific practices in Ouachita Parish.
AU insists that the school board is on shaky legal ground, noting that no federal court has ever upheld the types of coercive prayer taking place in Monroe. "Public schools are not Sunday schools," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Government officials have no business interfering in the private religious lives of students."
The lawsuit has rocked the Monroe area and, unfortunately, brought out numerous examples of mean-spirited, vituperative behavior. The two families who filed the case did so anonymously, fearing community reprisals against their children if their names become public. The plaintiffs' names remain secret, but that hasn't stopped some members of the community from trying to find out who they are.
Last December some local residents began speculating about the identity of the plaintiffs on a website chat room that a local attorney had set up to promote area activities and sports teams. But participants on the site, called "Rebel Net," used the forum to try to "out" the plaintiffs.
Several participants left anonymous messages on the site's chat room fingering Hans Korrodi, owner of an eatery in West Monroe called Joe Bob's Restaurant. Korrodi suddenly found himself facing an organized boycott. Business dropped off sharply, and eventually Korrodi had to close Joe Bob's.
"My friends began calling and asking me if I knew about the Internet," Korrodi told the News-Star last March. "I just can't believe people would pursue and prosecute someone on the Internet without even knowing if it's true."
There was one problem with the campaign against Korrodi's restaurant. While the chef does have two children in parish schools, he told the newspaper he's not the plaintiff in the case. Reflected Korrodi, "It just makes me sick to my stomach, to be a member of the community for 20 years and something like this happens. You couldn't have made me believe it before it happened to me."
Angry town residents have also flooded the News-Star with letters to the editor supporting school-sanctioned prayer and blasting Americans United, the ACLU and the plaintiffs. One writer called school prayer opponents "fools." Other writers have asserted that the United States should be officially Christian; several ex-students of West Monroe High wrote in to say that prayer has been a regular part of the school day for years and they saw no harm in it. One man opined in his letter that he is glad the prayers are Christian since "this nation is supposed to count itself as a Christian nation."
The newspaper is less enthusiastic about publishing opposing views. After Gary Sloan, a resident of nearby Ruston, published several letters criticizing the beliefs of fundamentalist Christians, the paper announced that it would no longer print any letters on the question "Does God exist?"
Sloan told Church & State the paper continues to publish letters promoting Christianity but that his writings promoting skepticism of fundamentalism are no longer welcome. "I thought the new policy was pretty well directed at me," he said. "Around here, lots of the fundamentalists say this is the buckle of the Bible Belt."
Local pro-prayer clergy acted quickly to exploit community sentiment. They pulled together an inter-faith coalition and on Jan. 30 hosted a pro-school prayer rally at the high school football stadium. More than 15,000 people turned out for the event, which featured a towering cross hovering over the crowd and a large "prayer circle" formed by adults around local school students.
The keynote speaker at the rally was William J. Murray, son of atheist Madalyn Murray-O'Hair, who filed one of the lawsuits that removed mandatory prayer from public schools in the early 1960s.
Murray, who has converted to evangelical Christianity and now calls himself an "evangelist," told the crowd that his mother "was simply wrong, and I see how her ideas have done wrong to the nation. Atheism doesn't work, and it's only by the grace of God that I am on the right side of the fence today."
Murray, who is fond of rhetorical excess, also told the crowd, "The ACLU is not our enemy our enemy is Satan."
Even though federal courts have repeatedly struck down state-sponsored prayer, Murray insisted that the school can win the case, remarking, "It's been won before, and we can win again."
Also appearing at the rally was Mathew Staver, president and general counsel of Liberty Counsel, a Religious Right legal group based in Orlando, Fla. Staver volunteered to help the school board after reading about the case on the World Wide Web. During the rally, he received an enthusiastic welcome from local school officials and blasted the high court decision striking down mandatory prayer in schools. "If we don't sow morality and virtue [in schools]," he said, "we are going to reap immorality and chaos."
During the CBS documentary, Staver argued that the prayers are really just another form of student announcement. He also insisted that non-Christian prayers could be recited, though he admitted none ever have.
Several members of the Ouachita School Board attended the rally and during the event pledged continued defiance. "We are going to do everything we can to ensure we keep student-led prayer in West Monroe High School and Ouachita Parish," said Manley, the school board vice president.
Board president Jack White agreed. The rally, he said, made an important statement. "I am sure we got someone's attention," White remarked. "If not God's, we got the people's who are against us."
School officials also got a little help from the state capital in Baton Rouge. Days before the rally, Gov. Foster issued a proclamation declaring the state's support for prayer in schools.
Local clergy have also labored to whip up community outrage through a series of full-page ads in the News-Star expressing support for the school board's prayer policy. The ads were signed by a wide array of local clergy, community leaders and business figures. One ad included the name of West Monroe High School Principal Reed; another was endorsed by Lawson Swearingen, president of the University of Louisiana at Monroe.
The local clergy who planned the rally claimed it was open to everyone. But the event clearly had the feel of an evangelical tent revival. Under the giant cross suspended over the stadium, participants sang Protestant hymns such as "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." The preaching was strictly fundamentalist in character.
Most clergy in town received personal invitations to the event. But at least three were left off the invite list the Rev. Mike Haney, a Roman Catholic priest, Rabbi David Klein of Congregation B'nai Israel and the Rev. Trisha Tedrow of Highland Presbyterian Church, a prayer policy opponent.
Although religious leaders and school officials have worked hard to portray the community as solidly in support of school prayer, there is clearly dissension in the ranks. During the CBS program, several Catholic students objected to the practice. One even wrote an anti-school prayer column that was published in the News-Star. Another student, who described himself as a Methodist and life-long Christian, said he opposes prayers over the intercom.
Americans United Litigation Counsel Ayesha Khan, who has traveled to the community to take depositions and gather evidence, said it is high time local school officials started obeying the law.
"Students have the right to pray in public schools, voluntarily and to themselves," said Khan. "That's a far cry from what is going on here. Some members of this community seem determined to force their religious views onto unwilling participants through the public school system. That has to stop."
Khan said it's unfortunate that her clients have had to seek anonymity but said she understands their concerns. "I have no doubt they would be subject to reprisals," Khan asserted. "The families challenging these practices don't want their children harassed or driven from the school."
Perhaps aware of the plaintiffs' fears in this area, Staver and other attorneys for the school board have filed motions before the court seeking to strip the parents and students of their anonymity. Attorneys with Americans United strongly opposed these motions, arguing that the maneuver is an attempt to intimidate the plaintiffs and possibly pressure them to drop the lawsuit by forcing them into the spotlight.
U.S. District Judge Robert Gillespie James agreed. In a brief order issued March 24, James granted the plaintiffs anonymity and also ordered much of the court record "sealed," meaning members of the media and public cannot get court documents and learn the plaintiffs' names. Any violations of these orders, James warned, would result in citations for criminal contempt.
These measures may seem extraordinary, but dissenters in Monroe are certain their fears are well founded. Charles Kincade, the local attorney handling the case in Monroe for the ACLU and Americans United, has had a taste of community hostility himself. Around town several signs have sprung up attacking him. One reads, "BOYCOTT KINCADE AND EVERY LITTLE PRAYER HATING DEVIL." Another proclaims, "RAILROAD KINCADE AND ALL FREE SPEECH HATERS OUT OF TOWN."
Kincade, a Monroe native and attorney in private practice, told Church & State the threats will not deter him from pressing forward with the case. "It concerns me, sure," he said. "Any time people are making vituperative comments about you, it concerns you. But it hasn't concerned me to the point of not doing it."
The Monroe attorney said he was motivated to get involved in the lawsuit because of his long-standing interest in church-state separation. "I don't think there's anything more important," he said. "When this case hit, I eagerly agreed to sign on."
Kincade saluted the plaintiffs for having the courage to bring the case forward. He noted that school-sponsored prayers have long been a feature of parish schools, recalling that they occurred when he attended West Monroe High, long after the Supreme Court struck down mandatory school prayer in a 1962 decision.
While pro-school prayer forces in the community have been very vocal and aggressive in peddling their views, Kincade said he has been heartened by many expressions of support he has received although they usually come via low-key personal contacts, not public declarations. He also noted that not every minister in the area supports the school's policy, pointing out that Haney, a Methodist minister and others have spoken out against school-sponsored prayer.
AU's Lynn, himself an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, said it is unfortunate that so many local clergy have cast their lot with the school system and coercive prayer rather then standing up for religious freedom and the separation of church and state. But, he said, in the end rallies in football stadiums, full-page newspaper ads and fiery sermons will not be relevant to the case. Under the First Amendment, majorities do not have the right to impose their religious practices on minorities. Most federal courts, including the Supreme Court, he pointed out, have zealously blocked such coercion
"School officials have promised to fight our lawsuit to the hilt," Lynn said. "We are equally determined to see it through to a successful conclusion. In the end, I'm confident we will prevail. We have the law and human decency on our side."