By Monique Harrison
OXFORD – Testimony in the Pontotoc County school prayer case concluded in U.S. District Court Wednesday, with both North Pontotoc’s Bible class teacher and superintendent taking the stand for the defense.
It is expected to be several weeks before U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers hands down a decision, with attorneys having 28 days to file briefs in the case.
Teacher Mike Thompson testified that he planned to make some changes to the Bible class next year in an attempt to make it conform to a curriculum outlined by the Mississippi Department of Education.
“There are some things that need work,” Thompson said when asked if he was covering the material found in the state’s revised curriculum for the course, which is an attempt to make the pilot class more balanced, presenting more viewpoints and providing more historically based information. “Like archaeology – I don’t provide a lot of information about archaeology now, but obviously I will have to next year.”
Bible history classes have been taught at the school for years, but were developed into a pilot class three years ago in an attempt to have the course accredited. Without accreditation, students cannot receive an elective credit for completing the yearlong class.
The pilot class, which is also being offered in four other school districts, was on the verge of being denied accreditation because of what state officials saw as flaws in the curriculum.
But after a February meeting between the classes’ teachers and state department officials, the Mississippi Department of Education agreed to recommend the pilot class be accredited, provided several changes were made to ensure that different viewpoints were discussed and no religious viewpoint was endorsed.
Ecru mother of six Lisa Herdahl filed a lawsuit against the Pontotoc County School District in December of 1994 after she learned that the school’s intercom was being used to broadcast student-led prayers and that students were taking Bible history classes at the school. She is joined in the suit by the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way.
Superintendent, expert testify
Pontotoc County Schools Superintendent Jerry Horton testified that the district’s decision to allow high school members of the Alatheia Christian club to pray on the intercom each morning was based on a longtime policy of allowing any student who represented a school-recognized group to speak.
“I believe we have constantly promoted free speech,” he said. “That policy requires that the Alatheia members’ speech be treated in the same way as political speech or any other speech heard on that intercom.”
Attorneys for the district also called expert witness Albert Mohler, president of Louisville, Ky.’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Mohler emphasized what he saw as the secular importance of teaching students the historical significance of the Bible.
“They can’t possibly understand the world view of those who established this nation and western civilization,” Mohler said.
But Herdahl’s lawyers say the importance of discussing the Bible as a historical document is not something they are disputing.
“We’ve said all along that a Bible history course, if taught correctly, with different views discussed is fine,” said attorney Elliot Mincberg. “But it should be taught as history. Not as fact. And that is the problem here.”
Mohler – like an expert witness called Tuesday by Herdahl’s attorneys – said he thought teaching Bible to elementary students would be more difficult, but that it could be done.
He said Pontotoc County’s new policy of requiring parents to approve children’s participation in the course eased his concerns somewhat.
After the trial
After the trial, Horton said a court-ordered move to permanently ban the intercom prayers or Bible classes could drive a wedge between the community and the school district.
“Right now, we have a great deal of community support,” he said, adding that the district’s students ranked in the state’s top 10 when state accreditation ratings based on test scores and graduation rates were announced last month. “But if these prayers and classes that are supported by so many people are taken away, it is going to be seen as another example of the government taking away rights of individuals. And I’m not sure we would have that support any longer.”
Horton said he was relatively certain the district would appeal if the judge did not rule in the district’s favor.
After court, Lisa Herdahl said she was relieved the three-day trial was over.
“I think the lawyers did a very good job of presenting the case and the case of my children. I’m happy things might get back to normal now,” said Herdahl, who was accompanied in the courtroom by her oldest son, Kevin Engle. Engle and younger brother David, 12, testified Monday.