School defamed kids, Alabama Jews claim

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NEW YORK — The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a Jewish family in rural Alabama, claiming that local school officials have violated their children's right to freedom of religion.

The lawsuit is the latest in a series of church-state issues that have plagued Alabama.

The suit, which was filed last week, alleges that over a period of several years, the three school-age children of Wayne and Sue Willis were the targets of anti-Semitic attacks, proselytizing and ridicule, some of which was directed at them from Pike County school officials.

Among the claims in the suit is that during a prayer service a school official physically forced down the head of one of the children.

Another child allegedly was assaulted and called anti-Semitic names. He was also told by a school vice principal to write an essay on "Why Jesus loves me," according to the lawsuit.

The youngest child was told during an assembly that students who did not accept Jesus as their savior would go to hell. The child had nightmares for weeks.

"Every day that I send my children to Pike County schools, I wonder if I am sending them into a war zone," Sue Willis wrote in papers filed with the court.

"I have asked school officials how I can teach my children to be tolerant human beings and not bigots when they are subjected to outright religious persecution and bigotry in school."

The parents initially took their complaints to the superintendent.

According to the ACLU, the parents were told that the harassment would stop if the family converted. One teacher allegedly told one child that if "parents will not save souls, we have to."

The Willis children are the only Jewish children in the 2,400-student Pike County school district, according to John Key, Pike County school superintendent

After several years of non-action on the part of the school district, the family turned to the Anti-Defamation League.

According to Jay Kaiman, Southeast regional director of the ADL, his office had originally hoped they could resolve the matter quickly.

But an ADL investigation found there was a "culture of problems in the school system that didn't seem to be going away," Kaiman said in a telephone interview.

This incident, coupled with the rhetoric from Alabama Gov. Fob James on school prayer, Kaiman said, is "very disturbing."

James supports school prayer in public schools.

A 1993 Alabama law stated that voluntary student-initiated prayer without administration interference is legal.

But in response to a lawsuit filed against two Alabama school districts, U.S. District Court Judge Ira DeMent struck down the law.

While one of the districts named in that suit has halted student-initiated prayer, DeKalb County has refused to comply with the ruling.

James has sided with DeKalb County.

In another church-state dispute, James supports a local judge's battle to keep a plaque of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. James has said he would send out the National Guard if anyone attempted to remove the display.

Even though James believes that students should be allowed to pray in school, he expressed his concern over the allegations made by the Willis family.

"If any part of what is alleged in this lawsuit is correct, it is absolutely unacceptable," he wrote in a statement.

For their part, school officials say they have handled every complaint that was reported to them.

According to Key, the Willis children were told by school officials they could not wear Star of David pins to school because it was a gang symbol. But after learning more, Key said, he told the children they could wear the pins.

He expressed doubt over whether many of the incidents alleged in the suit actually occurred. It "seems a little far-fetched," he said.

Olivia Turner, executive director of the ACLU of Alabama, said her office "fully believes" what the Willis children are saying.

The Willis family is not suing for money. Rather, they want to ensure that their children will not be harassed and will be allowed to practice their own religion.

They are also asking for a halt to activities at the school that violate the separation of church and state.

A trial date has not been set. It will be heard by the same judge who struck down the student-initiated prayer law in the state.