PONCHATOULA, La. — More than 1,000 Tangipahoa Parish teachers took a class on prayer in schools in an effort to avoid further lawsuits over the issue.
The 18,000-student school system has been the subject of four federal lawsuits in just over a decade over religion in public schools.
“A lot of you are under the impression that prayer has been removed from our school system,” said Superintendent Louis Joseph. “We can still pray but we just have to follow certain rules.”
The School Board signed a consent judgment in August 2004 to settle a lawsuit filed by the ACLU over prayers during football games. In that document, the board agreed to end prayers over the intercom system at athletic events and to prohibit official prayer during other school-sponsored events.
U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan later ruled school board prayers unconstitutional, but that part of the suit is being appealed.
The Louisiana chapter of the ACLU has also filed contempt-of-court motions over student prayers at two year-end banquets
At the end of the last school year, many teachers believed students could give prayers at year-end banquets if the students initiated the idea and wrote the prayers.
“Even though it is the student’s idea, we’re not allowed to have students do that,” Joseph said. “It’s not about whether we agree or disagree.”
Attorney Mike Johnson with the Alliance Defense Fund told teachers that a student could pray during school functions. The alliance is a Christian-oriented defense group assisting the school system with the prayer case. Using the example of a graduation speech, Johnson said the class valedictorian’s speech can have a religious message if that speech is not reviewed by the schools administration beforehand.
“The ACLU would have you believe you have to stop him,” Johnson said. “What is important here is that the school cannot pre-approve the speech.”
Joe Cook, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said yesterday that he would tell the school not to allow the religious speech.
“They cannot abdicate their responsibility to run the school when the student gets up to speak,” he said. “If you take the position that you can’t determine the content, then it opens the door for all kinds of speech.”
Examples of unwanted messages could include sexist and racist speech and criticism of the school administration, Cook said.
“Clearly a school administrator would not allow that,” he said.
A student can pray silently or with his or her peers at school as long as that prayer does not distract from the lesson, both Johnson and Cook said.
Later this month, teachers will be required to sign a memo indicating they understand the terms of the consent judgment. A hearing is set for September for the contempt motions over the year-end banquet prayers.