Leaders of a Mississippi school district pledged to keep some religion in schools despite a federal judge's ruling that its Bible classes and public address system prayers are unconstitutional.
Pontotoc County School Superintendent Jerry Horton said the district would likely appeal Monday's ruling that struck down its 50-year-old tradition."I don't think our Founding Fathers intended for this type of hostility to be demonstrated against students who want to freely and voluntarily engage in religious expression," Horton said.
Lisa Herdahl sued in 1994 to end school prayers in the largely Baptist community of Ecru, saying her five children have a constitutional right not to engage in student-led prayers and should not be taunted for their Lutheran beliefs.
U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers said students who obtain written parental permission may continue meeting in the gymnasium before school for devotionals.
But his ruling rejected the Bible classes and public address system prayers, saying "the Bill of Rights was created to protect the minority from tyranny by the majority."
School prayer can exist without violating the Constitution, Biggers said, but teachers must remain neutral.
He said the Pontotoc school system taught Bible classes aimed at a fundamentalist Christian viewpoint, meaning they stressed strict, literal interpretation of Scripture.
Some teachers led religious activities during class, Biggers said. And a Bible group was the only student organization allowed to conduct club activities - in its case, prayer - over the public address system.
Danny Lampley, an attorney for Herdahl, said he hoped the district would decide against an appeal, saying it's time for "them to go back to education and get out of the prayer business."
Herdahl, who moved from Wisconsin to the rural northeastern Mississippi town, said her family received bomb threats and harassing phone calls since she went to court.
She said she wasn't surprised at the ruling, but remained concerned about her family's safety.
"We're watching our backs," she said. "I still get dirty looks. It's like living in a different country - a lot of sleepless nights."
The U.S. Supreme Court banned prayer in public schools in 1963, but school lawyers said the devotionals and classes were protected by the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.
The judge, however, said that the Bible study group was the only one given an open forum on the intercom each day.