IFAS | Freedom Writer | November/December 1991 | duncanville.html

A Freedom Writer wins church/state battle

In the April/May 1990 Freedom Writer, we reported on several practices occurring at the Duncanville Independent School District in Duncanville, Texas that violated church/state separation. The Freedom Writer requested that the school distric t discontinue its practices of teacher-led prayers during 7th and 8th grade girls' gym classes; the distribution of Gideon Bibles in its elementary school hallways; public prayers before football games; and coach/teacher-led prayers before girls' basketba ll games. These offenses were reported to us by a Freedom Writer reader.

Shortly after lodging our complaint with school officials, a story about these unconstitutional practices appeared in the Dallas Morning News. After the story appeared, the prayers in the 7th and 8th grade girls' gym classes ceased. This cessation did not satisfy our Freedom Writer member. If they voluntarily stopped, in a few weeks or months, they might voluntarily continue. Additionally, the other practices continued.

With the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union, our local hero, whom we'll refer to as John Doe, brought suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, against the Duncanville Independent School District, requestin g the issuance of a preliminary and permanent injunction enjoining the school district from (1) permitting the school district employees to lead or participate in prayers with students in curricular or extracurricular activities; and (2) permitting prayer s to be recited by teachers with students in the classroom. John Doe also asked the court to require the school district to advise students as to their constitutional rights under the First Amendment with respect to prayer.

Doe won his motion for a preliminary injunction on November 18, 1991. The court enjoined the Duncanville Independent School District from permitting its employees "to lead, encourage, promote, or participate in prayer with or among students during curricu lar or extracurricular activities, including before, during or after school-related sporting events." The school district was also required to "advise the students of the Duncanville Independent School District, in writing, that under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, prayer and religious activities initiated and promoted by school officials are unconstitutional, and that students have a constitutional right not to participate in such activities."

Although Doe has enjoyed a major court victory, the students continue to have their own prayer circles before basketball games in front of the sports spectators. In addition to other students, the spectators include members of the general public. The pray er circles are conducted on the basketball court. Seeing athletes take center stage to pray creates "circumstances suggesting school participation or supervision." This activity appears to violate the federal district court's order. Doe is considering fil ing an action for contempt against the school district.

Meanwhile, the Duncanville Independent School District and the Rutherford Institute, a Christian Reconstructionist legal group, are appealing the federal district court's decision, based on their perception that the Duncanville Independent School District 's employees' First Amendment right to freedom of speech is infringed by such an order.

© 1998 Institute for First Amendment Studies, Inc.