Summarized by Kent Larsen
How Could A Mormon Family Sue Over School Prayer?
Kent Larsen 23Jun00 N1
SANTA FE, TEXAS -- This week's news that the Supreme Court had ruled against
allowing the Santa Fe, Texas Independent School District to have
"student-led voluntary prayers" before high school football games was
disappointing to many conservative Mormons. It was also shocking for many
that a the lawsuit had been filed by a Mormon family. But an analysis of
the case history shows why a Mormon family might file such a lawsuit.
The case was originally filed in 1995, in response to the way that the
Mormon family, and a Catholic family that joined them in the suit, were
treated by teachers and other students in the school district. Both families
felt that their children had been discriminated against and harassed for
belonging to a minority religion in the majority Southern Baptist town,
according to Mormon News' analysis of news reports and contacts with those
involved in the case.
Both families experienced a pattern of teachers and students promoting their
religion at school. One junior high school teacher passed out fliers for a
Baptist revival in class. Invitations to religious camps and other religious
materials were handed out in the classroom. Teachers included denominational
religious teachings in their lessons. Bibles were distributed in the schools
by the Gideons. At lunch time, students were told to bow their heads and
pray before eating.
The families soon discovered that religion was included in the school
system's policies. At the time the original lawsuit was filed, the district
had a written policy of designating a minister at the beginning of each
school year who was to give invocations at school events, including not only
football games and graduation, but school assemblies. The district court
found that the school district had encouraged and preferred religion clubs
over other clubs.
But the problem faced by the Mormon and Catholic families wasn't limited to
simple promotion of a church. It included outright harassment of their
children, simply because they weren't part of the dominant church. When one
of the children in the Mormon family questioned a teacher's promotion of a
revival, the teacher asked the student what religion she belonged to. When
told that the child was Mormon, the teacher launched into an attack on
Mormonism, calling it a "non-Christian cult," saying it was of the devil,
and telling the child that she was going to hell. The court also heard
'uncontradicted' evidence that students who declined to accept Bibles or
objected to prayers and religious observances in school were verbally harassed.
Because of the climate, the families decided that they needed protection,
and filed their lawsuit anonymously. But the district actively sought to
find out their identities, according to one report going as far as to
interrogate some students in an effort to discover the identities of the
families. These efforts led the district court to threaten "the harshest
possible contempt sanctions" if school employees continued trying "to ferret
out the identities of" the families. It specifically enjoined the district
from using "bogus petitions, questionnaires, individual interrogation, or
downright 'snooping'"to discover who the families are.
The court also closed the courtroom when the children in the families
testified because of "the possibility of social ostracization and violence
due to militant religious attitudes. One of the witnesses who testified in
the case (not a member of either family), chose to home-school her youngest
daughter to avoid persistent verbal harassment, with pushing and shoving,
over issues of religion in the public school.
Faced with the lawsuit, the school district quickly changed its policies,
instead of trying to defend them. But in practice, the attorney for the
plaintiffs claims that the school district never fixed the problems, "A
number of school board members were a very strong and vocal religious right,
and they took a position in concert with some local churches that they were
going to infuse religion into the school, says Anthony Griffin, who
represents the families. "And its still going on. It's a policy that comes
from higher up."
Because the families remain anonymous, it isn't possible to know how the
Mormon family felt about the issue of prayer in the school before they
experienced this harassment. But, the family is pleased with the results. A
friend of the families, Debbie Mason, told the Associated Press, that the
families were elated by the Supreme Court's decision on Monday. "Thank God,
thank God," Mason said. "This time it was football games, next it could have
been the classroom. It is a slippery slope. This school district knew what
it was doing and kept pushing and pushing."