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Posted 24 Feb 2001   For week ended June 25, 2000
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Sent on Mormon-News: 23Jun00

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."


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