By Monique Harrison
OXFORD – After over 14 months of debate, public rallies and national media attention, Judge Neal Biggers will begin hearing the Pontotoc County school prayer case in federal district court here Monday.
The lawsuit against the Pontotoc County School District was filed by Lisa Herdahl, the Mississippi American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way in December of 1994 after Herdahl’s five school-age children were allegedly ridiculed for refusing to participate in religious activities that have been routine for years at the school.
There are three major issues on which Biggers is expected to decide:
– The legality of using a school’s public address system to broadcast a student-led morning prayer or devotional.
– The constitutionality of morning devotionals held by the students’ Aletheia Club. Before the lawsuit, the devotionals were held during homeroom, but they currently are being held before school hours in the gym. School officials say almost all students, with the exception of a few who can’t get to school in time, typically attend.
The devotions are held at both the elementary and high school level, and Biggers is expected to consider each instance separately.
– The legality of teaching elective Bible history classes at both the high school and elementary level.
The judge is also expected to address several other issues in the case, including whether teachers have the right to discuss their religious beliefs during classroom lectures.
The distribution of pocket-size Bibles by Gideon International – a nondenominational organization made up of Christian men – is also expected to be discussed.
Gideons regularly distribute Bibles in public schools across the U.S., including almost all Mississippi school districts.
Both sides optimistic
Attorneys on both sides of the debate say they are optimistic about the outcome of the trial, which is expected to last about a week.
“I’m very, very confident,” said Tupelo attorney Danny Lampley, who is one of four attorneys representing Herdahl. “We’ve worked extremely hard, and there’s a great deal of precedent that is on our side.”
While acknowledging that he has about 30 years of legal precedent to dispute, Pontotoc County schools attorney Phillip Tutor said he’s “cautiously optimistic.”
“We realize that there are parts of the complaint that in light of court opinions, are difficult to overcome,” he said. “But there are a lot of things that have not been specifically addressed by the Supreme Court. I believe what we are doing here is in line with what the community wants and what people across the nation want. Those issues are important enough for us to look into – to find out if we can do this or not.”
Tutor also said he thinks the U.S. Supreme Court is currently shifting to the right, particularly in the area of religious freedom.
“I think the tone there is changing,” he said. “And a change there could be to our advantage here.”
Neither side would go into detail about their arguments.
“I will say this,” Tutor said. “There won’t be any smoking guns. It’s not going to be terribly exciting for the average person out there. And after a grueling week for all of us, the judge will probably take it under advisement and sit on it for a few months. Not all that exciting, but it’s historical just the same.”
Lampley said he expected to devote more argument time to the constitutionality of Bible classes at the school.
“As far as I’m concerned, there have already been rulings on intercom prayers,” he said. “That’s pretty much resolved.”
He said he’d also like to see specific guidelines for the operations of the Aletheia club.
“There are things they could do as a club within the confines of law that would be perfectly acceptable, without infringing upon anyone else,” he said. “I’d like to see it resolved.”
Officials for both sides have said they plan to appeal the decision if the judge does not decide in their favor.
“No matter what, this thing probably won’t be over next week,” said Pontotoc County Schools Superintendent Jerry Horton.