HED:Principles review Pontotoc school prayer case
By Errol Castens
OXFORD - Principles in Pontotoc County's school prayer court case explained their positions to a class of master's degree candidates at the University of Mississippi on Thursday.
The session in a class called "Common Ground: School and Community" aimed at exposing future school administrators to the legal challenges involved in managing educational institutions.
Lisa Herdahl, the plaintiff in Herdahl vs. Pontotoc County School District, told of her motives for seeking an end to the student-led prayers that used to be broadcast on North Pontotoc Attendance Center's intercom every morning.
"I saw my children being hurt," said the California native who said her family endured threats, epithets and the loss of her job to continue the lawsuit. "I felt my children were being punished for not believing the same things the majority did."
Herdahl, who said she is a Christian but not a church member, said she went to both public and private (Baptist) schools as a child.
"Both of my parents were teachers, and there was tolerance for people of different religions," she said. "I've always believed in separation of church and state. I don't feel the school should be telling my kids how to pray."
Herdahl's six children are all still students at North Pontotoc,
but she said the case has left them ostracized.
Her oldest son's girlfriend is forbidden by the girl's parents to go out with him, and another son was abandoned by his best friend, she said.
Until recently she was unable to get a job, attributing the lack of offers to her lawsuit. Recently, she started working for Danny Lampley, the attorney who argued and won her case in federal district court, and she is considering going to law school.
Tim Wildmon, representing the American Family Association, whose law center advised the school district, outlined a moral decline that he said accompanied the demise of school prayer.
The fear of God permeated American culture in the 1960s and before, Wildmon said.
"Our country has a rich religious heritage," he said.
He cited the "In God We Trust" motto of American currency and the same words engraved in the U. S. Capitol.
"The Supreme Court opens with 'God save this honorable court,' and the president takes the oath of office with his hand on a Bible,"Wildmon said.
He used secular magazines to illustrate a host of social ills - crime, illegitimacy, drug abuse - that he attributed to a widespread decline of morals.
"Illegitimacy is a growing problem because the guys who get these young ladies pregnant are sorry people," he said. "I don't know how to put that into academic language, but they're just sorry."
Wildmon linked court rulings and legislation against organized religion in schools with the moral decline he had described.
"I don't think you can have a complete person without both academic and moral education," he said. "I don't think this idea of separation of church and state is intended to get rid of all religious speech in the public square.
"The ACLU has fostered this false idea of separation of church and state, and courts have taken it to extremes to persecute people of faith."
Neal Biggers, the judge who heard the case in federal district
court, gave his perspective on the school prayer case.
"It was clear from the beginning who would win," Biggers said. "It was a no-brainer. The law is clear."
School prayer cases are rare in the courts because the law and
previous court decisions are so transparent, the jurist asserted.
Biggers said he also believes other area schools have practices
similar to those that landed Pontotoc County in court.
"As long as nobody complains about it, they can do it," he said. "We're not out there policing them."