Prayers over PA system end at east Ala high school

Published 11:06 pm Thursday, March 18, 2010

ALEXANDRIA, Ala. (AP) — The Christian influence at Alexandria High School is visible, but as of this week it’s a little less overt.

There, brightly colored flyers printed with Bible verses hang on the walls, weekly Bible studies are held before class begins and, until recently, prayers were spoken over the school’s intercom system. But that regular practice stopped this week when a student questioned the legality of the practice.

“Every day in the morning we would have student-led prayer over the PA system and I looked this up. It’s illegal,” the student said. “It wasn’t just me; there were a bunch of other students who wanted it stopped.”

He said he demanded it stop in a voicemail sent to Superintendent Judy Stiefel. He also contacted the American Civil Liberties Union by e-mail and by hand-written letter to complain about the issue.

The student requested he not be named in this story because he expected his classmates would not react well to his actions.

In response to the complaint Stiefel sent out an e-mail earlier this week to every school in the system. She said Wednesday the e-mail “reminded them of the law.” The morning prayers at Alexandria High stopped Tuesday.

Alexandria Principal Ronald Chambless declined to comment for this story.

Supreme Court decisions have set precedents prohibiting school-sponsored religious activity, based on the First Amendment, which states Congress may make no law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

“The U.S. Supreme Court has made it pretty clear that school officials cannot sponsor prayers,” said Bryan Fair, a University of Alabama law professor. “They control the PA system; the student doesn’t control the PA system. That is going to be considered government speech rather than private speech.”

However, the law does not prohibit all prayer. Private prayer and voluntary student prayer is permissible by the law and is allowed at Calhoun County Schools, according to school board attorney Robin Andrews.

“Each student is free to pray individually or with other students during non-instructional time, during lunch, before or after school; even during class, providing it’s private and doesn’t interfere with instruction,” Andrews said.

Allison Neal, legal director of the Alabama chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said these issues are common in the state and that they usually are resolved without taking any legal action. Neal said that her group normally handles such complaints by talking with school superintendents, but Stiefel said Wednesday the ACLU had not contacted her about the issue.

“I have only had one student to comment about this,” Stiefel said. “It has not been a major problem.”

The student said he was motivated to take action because he didn’t think it was fair for the student body, which he described as overwhelmingly “fundamentally Christian” to subject all students to Christian prayers and Bible verses.

“What bothered me about it is that it’s illegal and I don’t want the school breaking the law like that,” the student said. “I want to stand up for fairness. I’m a person that embraces all religion and I love everyone.”