July/August 2000 People & Events

Federal Court Strikes Down Louisiana School Prayer Law

A 1999 Louisiana law designed to reintroduce official prayer into public schools is unconstitutional, a federal court has held.

Ruling in a lawsuit brought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, U.S. District Judge Robert G. James said June 14 that the measure ran afoul of the separation of church and state.

In a seven-page decision, James observed, "This statute cannot help but create the appearance that the state of Louisiana is endorsing religion since the state has created a venue for public prayer (the quintessential religious practice) in public facilities under the supervision of public officials. The Court therefore finds that the statute is an unconstitutional governmental endorsement of religion."

The Louisiana legislature passed the school prayer measure about a year ago, and it was later signed into law by Gov. Mike Foster. The legislation altered an existing school prayer statute that authorized silent prayer or meditation in school every day by removing the word "silent." During deliberations over the bill, several backers admitted they wanted to return vocal prayer by teachers and students to public schools.

Church-state separationists hailed the court decision.

"This is an important victory for individual rights," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "It sends a clear message that government officials can't tell public school students when and how to pray."

Americans United and the Louisiana ACLU brought the legal challenge against the law as part of a larger lawsuit challenging recitation of prayers over the intercom at West Monroe High School and other schools within the Ouachita Parish School District (See "Louisiana Time Warp," June 2000 Church & State). School officials had been adamant about defending the prayer practice and even enlisted the help of an Orlando, Fla.-based Religious Right group called Liberty Counsel.

The Ouachita School Board also played hardball and tried unsuccessfully to have the case kicked out of court, arguing that one of the plaintiffs was not a legal resident of the district. Ayesha Khan, Americans United's litigation counsel, noted that the court record showed that attorneys for the school board used $7,000 in taxpayer money to hire a private investigator to track the student and his family.

But just days after James' decision on the state law, members of the board voted 6-1 to settle the lawsuit. The settlement calls for all schools in the parish to stop sponsoring prayers over the public address system.

Lynn said the decision in the Doe v. Ouachita Parish School Board case, coupled with the U.S. Supreme Court's recent ruling striking down "student-led" prayers before public school football games, should serve as a warning to any school systems that are still sponsoring religious activity.

"This ruling should help put a stop to the trend of politicians meddling in the religious lives of Americans," Lynn said. "Families, not legislators, have the right to make decisions about children's religious upbringing. Surely that's a principle we can agree on."

Clinton Agrees To Federal Aid For Religious Groups

A compromise between the Clinton administration and the House Republican leadership clears the way for a misguided and constitutionally dubious plan to fund religious groups that offer social services, Americans United charged in May.

While details are still being finalized, both sides agreed May 22 to provide public funds for "faith-based" substance abuse programs. The measure is part of a larger "New Markets and Community Renewal" legislative initiative, an effort that would cost $5 billion over five years to provide investment incentives for poor communities.

"This agreement could lead to a constitutional disaster," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "If this becomes law, Americans will be forced to fund religious groups and subsidize employment discrimination, and those in need will face religious pressures in order to receive assistance. This is a terrible mistake."

The "charitable choice" provisions were pushed during the negotiations by Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), a long-time advocate of the controversial policy. Under Watts' proposal, those seeking substance abuse assistance could be required to "actively participate in religious practice, worship and instruction and to follow the rules of behavior that are religious in content or origin."

Watts' plan also allows church programs to use staff with no training in treating substance abuse and engage in publicly funded employment discrimination. AU's Lynn added, "Watts' approach is reckless and outrageous. That his provisions were involved at all in the negotiations should give pause to anyone concerned with religious freedom."

Charitable choice originated with Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) during the drafting of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. The concept involved changing the law to permit public funding of "pervasively sectarian" groups where religion permeates every aspect of the institution. According to a press release issued by the White House and comments from Gene Sperling, the director of the White House's National Economic Council, the new initiative will provide church-state safeguards that are "consistent with the 1996 Welfare Reform Act."

Americans United says those safeguards are woefully inadequate.

"This offers little solace to those concerned with the First Amendment and church-state separation," said Lynn. "Starting there is starting too far down a constitutionally dubious road. While the details of the White House compromise are being completed, I would sincerely hope that both sides remember that there's still something called the First Amendment on the books. A political stunt like this could have devastating legal and policy consequences."

Louisiana School's Evolution Disclaimer Fails At High Court

In all of the hubbub over the Supreme Court's June 19 ruling about public school football prayer, a second significant action by the high court affecting church-state relations almost got lost in the media shuffle.

The same day the justices struck down the Santa Fe, Texas, school district's prayer policy, they also declined to overturn a Louisiana decision dealing with a new twist on the debate over "creation science." The case concerned a controversial anti-evolution disclaimer that the Religious Right-dominated school board in Tangipahoa Parish decreed that teachers read to students in science classes.

The statement, approved April 19, 1994, asserted that the study of evolution was "not intended to influence or dissuade the Biblical version of Creation or any other concept." It insisted that "it is the basic right and privilege of each student to form his/her own opinion or maintain beliefs taught by parents on this very important matter of the origin of life and matter."

At the behest of the Louisiana ACLU, a federal district court struck down the policy, holding that it lacked a valid secular purpose and thus ran afoul of church-state separation. The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals took the same view. But that decision was appealed to the entire 15-judge panel of the 5th Circuit, sitting en banc. Earlier this year, the divided panel voted 8-7 against the disclaimer.

The Supreme Court's militant anti-separationists Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia were infuriated by the high court's refusal to hear Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education v. Freiler. In a six-page dissent studded with sarcasm, Scalia and his two allies insisted that the disclaimer was designed "merely to advance freedom of thought" and did not have a religious purpose.

Scalia summed up by taking a parting shot at evolution: "[T] oday we permit a Court of Appeals to push the much beloved secular legend of the Monkey Trial one step further. We stand by in silence while a deeply divided Fifth Circuit bars a school district from even suggesting to students that other theories besides evolution including, but not limited to, the Biblical theory of creation are worthy of their consideration."

Supporters of church-state separation and the teaching of standard science in public schools were appalled with Scalia's stance. They noted that undermining evolution through disclaimers and other mechanisms is the chief strategy of creationists these days, since the drive to have religious doctrine taught alongside evolution has been rejected by the courts. The leading forces behind this movement are fundamentalist ministries that oppose evolution on religious grounds.

"Scalia ignores the facts and treats scientific theory and religious faith as if they were the same thing," said Molleen Matsumura, network project director for the National Center for Science Education in El Cerrito, Calif. "But they aren't. Unfortunately, so long as even one justice writes as if there's no difference between science and religion, creationists will take it as encouragement to try to get religion into science classrooms."

Public School Revival In Mississippi Sparks Americans United Protest

Americans United has written to public school officials in Carriere, Miss., warning them to stop sponsoring religious revivals after the details of a four-hour religious event at the school became public.

The event took place last April at Pearl River Central High School and has been dubbed the "Pearl River Revival" by supportive fundamentalist Christians. According to an account in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the revival began after the school allowed the Fellowship of Christian Athletes to sponsor a 90-minute program just before lunch. About 90 percent of the school's 640 students attended.

As the event escalated, students and teachers began lining up to give emotional personal testimonies. When the 90 minutes had expired, Principal Lolita Lee decided to let the revival continue.

"I said to myself, 'The Spirit is filling these kids, and I'm going to let it continue. I don't want it to stop,'" Lee told the newspaper. She later called Superintendent Zeno Carter and urged him to attend. "But I wasn't calling to ask permission to let it continue," she said." I wanted him to come see this."

Lee, who offered her own testimony at the event, said the revival ended only when school buses pulled up at the building to pick up students at 3:15. Although one teacher told Lee she had probably broken the law, the principal remained utterly unapologetic about the nature of the event. "If the ACLU wants to come, go ahead, but the most they can make us do is make up a day," she said. "The students have told us if that's what it means, it's fine by them."

Lee also demonstrated a cavalier attitude toward religious minorities. Advised that there are Jewish students at the school, she replied, "I'm not even sure whether they were there."

After word about the event began spreading over the World Wide Web, Lee was swamped with congratulatory e-mail messages from fundamentalist Christians all over the country. She also made a number of appearances on Christian radio.

But not all of the responses were supportive. On June 8, Americans United Legal Director Steven K. Green wrote to Lee, Carter and School Board President Fred Jenkins, advising them that the school-sanctioned revival was a violation of the law.

"Public schools are to be respectful with regard to religious matters, neither promoting nor encouraging religious activity among students," wrote Green. "Schools are also prohibited from delegating their authority to third persons, including students, to use the compulsory attendance laws to direct religious activity."

Green advised Lee that the revival was a "clear violation of the Constitution" and told her to "refrain from allowing such events in the future."

Vatican, Muslim States Block Women's Rights Drive At United Nations

Efforts to expand a United Nations document outlining the universal rights of women ran into a roadblock in June thanks to opposition from the Vatican and its fundamentalist Muslim allies.

The new document was an effort to build on a statement on women's rights approved five years ago at a UN conference in Bejing, China. The original document states that women "have the right to decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality" and can do so without "coercion, discrimination and violence."

Several Western nations had lobbied for expanding the document to include explicit references to women's rights to access safe abortions. They also wanted to include a broader definition of the word "family" and some type of acknowledgement of gay rights. This effort, however, was turned back thanks to Vatican-led opposition.

Joining the Roman Catholic Church in opposing the expansion of women's rights were hardline Muslim nations, including Iran, Libya, Algeria, Pakistan and Sudan.

Delegates from 180 nations did approve some changes to the document, including the addition of language opposing domestic violence, marital rape and so-called "honor killings," whereby women are murdered by family members who claim they have shamed them.

Advocates of women's rights noted that the Vatican-led alliance had hoped to roll back some of the rights outlined in the original Bejing document. That effort failed, leading one UN official to claim victory.

"I'm very happy that the dire predictions that there would be a rollback have proved false," said Angela King, a UN official who oversees women's rights issues. "We were determined to get a strong document that did not in any way diminish the gains women had achieved in Bejing. We were also determined to go beyond Bejing, and we did, despite the efforts of countries that made the process such an arduous one."

But church officials also claimed success. After the vote, Archbishop Renato Martino, the Vatican representative at the UN, told Catholic News Service, "I saw again that the developed world tried to impose a decadent view of society on the rest of the world. I thank God they did not succeed."

Martino, noting that the Vatican was accused of entering into "unholy alliances" with fundamentalist Muslim nations, added, "I'm not bothered. We do not seek accolades. We have to uphold principles."

Bishop William F. Murphy, writing in the Boston Pilot, took things a step further and saluted the radical Muslim nations that formed a partnership with the Vatican. "Don't be fooled," Murphy wrote. "It is the 'conservative Vatican' or in reality the Holy See and other brave nations who are speaking out for life and defending women and children against the forces of the culture of death who think abortion is liberation."

Wisc. Judge Under Fire For Accepting Help From Pro-Voucher Groups

A Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who played an important role in upholding Mil­waukee's religious school voucher plan in 1998 is being sued by state election officials for illegally accepting campaign contributions from pro-voucher organizations.

Justice Jon Wilcox, who ran for a full term on the court in 1997, is accused of accepting illegal corporate contributions as well as individual contributions above the $10,000 state limit and of filing false campaign reports. Members of the state Elections Board said they do not believe Wilcox was personally responsible for the illegal activities, but charged that his campaign worked in close coordination with a conservative pro-voucher group called the Wisconsin Coalition for Voter Participation.

Days before the election, the Coa­lition flooded voter mailboxes with postcards purporting to compare the records of Wilcox and his opponent, Walt Kelly. In reality, the postcards were not objective voter education material but were paid for by pro-voucher forces and sought to portray Kelly as a liberal.

In late April, State School Super­intendent John Benson blasted Wilcox for not recusing himself from the voucher lawsuit. "If we knew what we know now, Justice Wilcox surely would have been obligated to withdraw from the case," Benson said in a press statement. "What happened here should bother every single citizen, no matter their political persuasion."

Benson said Wilcox should have realized the source of the last-minute funds that poured into his campaign. "I think there was ample time for him to investigate and find out where all that money came from," Benson told the Wisconsin State Journal. "And it's also obvious to me you wouldn't have to be a rocket scientist to make some pretty intelligent guesses about where the money came from."

Wisconsin's Code of Judicial Conduct states that a judge must withdraw from a case "when the facts and circumstances the judge knows or reasonably should know" raise questions about his or her ability to be impartial.

In total, the Coalition gave Wilcox's campaign $200,500, with most of the money coming from outside Wisconsin. The largest single donation, $34,500, came from the American Education Reform Foundation, a pro-voucher group formerly located in Indianapolis that has since moved to Milwaukee.

In other news about state courts:

Judge Roy Moore, who became a hero to the Religious Right when he refused to remove a Ten Command­ments plaque from his courtroom in Etowah County, Ala., is one step closer to becoming chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.

Moore won the Republican primary June 6, capturing 55 percent of the vote. His nearest opponent, Justice Harold See, who already sits on the court, won 30 percent. (Two other candidates split the rest.)

The New York Times reported that See, who had the backing of the state's business community, raised more than $1.1 million during the race four times more than Moore. However, voter turnout was light, and Moore benefited from backing by Christian conservatives. He will face Democrat Sharon Yates, a judge on the Court of Civil Appeals, this November.

Moore has promised to take his personally hand-carved plaque of the Ten Commandments to the state supreme court building if he wins.

An Idaho judge who courted the Religious Right and stressed his support for creationism has won election to the state supreme court. Fourth District Judge Daniel Eismann defeated incumbent Kathy Silak during the May 23 election. Eismann, who campaigned on his opposition to legal abortion and support for creationism in public schools, said he would not withdraw from cases involving those issues that may reach the court.

Political analysts in Idaho said many voters were angry with Silak over a decision she wrote last October giving the federal government rights to unclaimed water in several Idaho wilderness areas.

Va. Supreme Court Hears Arguments In Regent Bonds Case

The Virginia Supreme Court heard oral arguments June 6 in a case that will test the constitutionality of a proposal to issue $55 million in government bonds for TV preacher Pat Robertson's Regent University

During the 30-minute argument, Regent attorney William Broaddus argued that the university is not "pervasively sectarian" and thus should qualify for the bonds. But Broaddus also argued that even if Regent were found to be pervasively sectarian, it should still be eligible for this type of aid.

Robertson hopes to use the bonds to finance new construction at Regent's Virginia Beach campus and pay for buildings at a satellite campus in northern Virginia. Although the bonds are not guaranteed by the state government, issuance of them on Regent's behalf would save the university $30 million in interest over the life of the loan.

American United successfully blocked a similar bond issuance for Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in 1990. In that case, Habel v. Industrial Development Authority, the Virginia high court ruled unanimously that issuance of the bonds would violate the church-state provisions of both the U.S. and Virginia constitutions.

Broaddus argued that the U.S. Supreme Court has softened its stand on separation of church and state over the past 10 years and as a result would be now be likely to uphold this type of aid. And, even though Regent advertises itself as a fundamentalist Christian institution, Broaddus asserted that the school does not seek to indoctrinate anyone in religion.

"While portions of Regent's curriculum have a Christian perspective," he said, "that viewpoint is used to describe truth, justice and love as described by the provost."

Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia brought the challenge to the proposed bond issuance. The lead plaintiff in the case, Virginia College Building Authority v. Lynn, is Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United and a Virginia resident.

Americans United Litigation Counsel Ayesha Khan represented AU before the Virginia high court. Responding to Broaddus' argument, Khan asserted that the U.S. Supreme Court has never held that states may give aid to pervasively sectarian institutions. To do so now, Khan said, would result in the creation of a "judicial juggernaut" that would overturn decades of precedent.

Khan asserted that by giving Regent the bonds, the state would be assisting in the spread of its sectarian ideas. "If we allow the state to give religious institutions bricks and mortar," she said, "then the government could also build churches."

Khan also argued that the case represented "a pure symbiosis between government and religion." She noted that Broaddus, who is Regent's counsel, had been named by the Virginia College Building Authority to represent the Authority in the case.

Americans United charged that other Virginia officials have been especially eager to help Robertson in this situation. They noted that the office of Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley filed a brief on Regent's behalf. Earley is a Robertson ally who received a $35,000 campaign donation from the TV preacher.

After the argument, Lynn met with Virginia television, radio and print reporters outside the courthouse in Richmond and briefed them on the significance of the case.

Lynn dismissed claims that Regent is not pervasively sectarian. He noted that the school requires all of its faculty to be born-again Christians and instructs them to integrate that perspective in all coursework. The school also requires prospective students to submit a letter of recommendation from their clergy.

In 1991 Robertson applied for $10 million in industrial development bonds to finance new student housing at Regent. Americans United, citing the Habel precedent, quickly announced that it would challenge the bonds in court if they were issued. Although the Virginia Beach City Council voted unanimously to approve the bond issuance, Robertson quietly dropped the request before the matter reached state court.