School prayer rulings give both sides ammunition

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The battle over school prayer continues in the wake of two recent federal court decisions that brought mixed news to both sides of the church-state controversy.

A federal judge in Utah delivered a setback last week to Rachel Bauchman, the Jewish high school student who alleged that her choir teacher violated her constitutional rights by proselytizing in class and compelling her to perform religious music.

At the same time, advocates of church-state separation hailed a Mississippi woman's victory this week in a battle against what she called coercive religious practices in her children's school district.

U.S. District Court Judge Neal Biggers ruled Monday that the North Pontotoc County School District in northern Mississippi violated the constitutional separation of church and state by allowing students to recite prayers over the school intercom and by teaching Bible classes as part of the official school curriculum.

Lisa Herdahl, a Lutheran, said she and her five children were vilified in the community and received bomb threats when she objected to the school's religious practices.

Biggers had issued a preliminary injunction last year ordering the school to cease the activities, and this week's ruling made the injunction permanent.

School prayer can exist without violating the Constitution, Biggers ruled, but teachers must remain neutral. He said the Bible classes were taught from a fundamentalist Christian viewpoint.

Sam Rabinove, legal director of the American Jewish Committee, welcomed the Mississippi ruling.

He said, however, he was troubled by the judge's decision to allow children to continue meeting in the gym for morning religious services prior to school, provided that they obtain written permission from their parents.

"Public school is not a house of worship and the student body is not a congregation," Rabinove said.

School officials contend that the student-led prayers — a 50-year tradition in the rural school district — should be viewed as an issue of free speech. They pledged to keep some religion in schools and said the district would likely appeal the ruling. In Utah, Bauchman, 17, had won a temporary restraining order last year forbidding her school choir from singing religious devotional songs at her Salt Lake City high school's graduation ceremony. But a defiant choir went ahead with their program anyway. After reviewing new evidence presented by Bauchman's attorneys, U.S. District Court Judge J. Thomas Greene last week dismissed some of Bauchman's claims as "speculative" and others as unsupported.

Bauchman was unavailable for comment, but one of her legal representatives said Bauchman and her mother intend to appeal the decision to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"I don't think this was an unbiased review of the facts by any means," said Lisa Thurau, executive director of the National Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty, which has assisted Bauchman in her legal challenge.

The judge "is affirming the right to have climates in public schools that are hostile to children that are in the minority," Thurau added. "I can't believe we want that."

Greene made an initial ruling against Bauchman last year denying a restraining order, but that ruling was overturned on appeal.

Thurau said the judge has again "made it clear that he has a different perspective on the Constitution than we do," and hopes for better luck through another appeal.