IFAS | Freedom Writer | November/December 1997 | etowah.html

First Amendment 'invalid'
in Etowah County

By Barbara A. Simon, Esq.

Reacting to an October 30, 1997 federal injunction issued by US District Court Judge Ira DeMent, prohibiting the enactment of a 1993 Alabama law allowing "student-led non-proselytizing, voluntary prayer in public schools," Alabama politicians and many of their constituents are in an uproar.

Gov. Fob James, Jr. issued a statement on November 4 pledging to "resist DeMent's order by every legal and political means, with every ounce of strength I possess." Earlier this year, Gov. James sent Judge DeMent a lengthy, hand-delivered letter arguing t hat the Bill of Rights does not apply to the states. The state attorney general, Bill Pryor, plans to appeal the ruling.

Judge Roy S. "Ten Commandments" Moore, of the Etowah County Circuit Court, ruled that Judge DeMent's federal injunction was not the law of Etowah County. Pamela L. Sumners, the lawyer for the plaintiffs seeking to invalidate the 1993 law, is petitioning Judge DeMent to block Judge Moore's ruling. In her petition she wrote that it is well settled law that federal courts have supremacy over state courts and that "[T]his court cannot allow Etowah County to set up a law unto itself, to be a constitutional re public unto itself." Ms. Sumners' case is being financed by the American Civil Liberties Union and by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

High school students from the northern Alabama hill country known as Sand Mountain have been protesting the injunction by staging student prayer walkouts. Jermaine Davis, an 18 year old senior from Sand Mountain, interviewed in The New York Times ( November 8, 1997), said, "Everyone around here is God-believing. Everyone around here believes in Christ, as far as I know. Having Jesus in our school is something that we need. It gives us strength."

Until Judge DeMent issued his ruling, sectarian prayers were commonly recited over the public address system at the beginning of the day, at school assemblies and commencement exercises, and at athletic events. Under the ruling, students are still permitt ed a wide range of free speech and free exercise (of religion) rights: to engage in private, personal prayer; the wearing of religious symbols and clothing; the use of religious texts in class for academic purposes; voluntary expressions of religious beli efs by students in school assignments; and participation in religious activities during non-instructional time.

Religious right leaders, such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family and Gary Bauer of the Washington-based Family Research Council, are using this issue as "further evidence of the liberal judicial power grab underway in our country," and as a tool in th eir already highly successful fundraising campaign.

© 1998 Institute for First Amendment Studies, Inc.