The Willis family did not sue the Pike County school district for money, but to ensure freedom of religious expression and protection from religious harassment for not just their own children, but for everyone.
"We don't consider ourselves as activists," said Sue, "but just Americans trying to preserve everyone's rights. Whether we are Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim, we are all equal."
Not, however, if the state promotes religion. Once it does, then those who don't believe in or follow that specific religion aren't treated as equals, but as outsiders--and few things can serve as a better example of just how unequal they become than that of her children's experience in the Pike County schools.
From the start, these kids suffered from blatant, in-your-face violations of the most basic religious freedoms. According to McCaffery, for example, the Pike County school system forced these children to participate in Christian prayers and events. At one of the required school assemblies, Sarah (11 years old and in fifth grade at the time) was traumatized by the message of a minister, invited by school officials, who told students that they would go to hell if they did not accept Jesus Christ. Sarah curled into a ball and tried to plug her ears.
"Sarah had nightmares for weeks after the incident," said her mother. Sue also described how a teacher physically pushed David's head down during prayer at the Pike County High School assembly. And Paul, who was constantly ridiculed and called "Jew boy" or "Jewish joker" by other students, was assigned to write an essay entitled 'Why Jesus Loves Me' as a means of discipline."
Apparently school officials saw nothing wrong with turning the Pike County public schools into evangelistic centers and forcing students to become congregants.
McCaffery said that a teacher told one of the Willis children, "If parents will not save souls, we have to."
Of course, for years the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that "saving souls" is not the mission of the state, much less of public schools. In Zorach v. Clauson the Court said specifically: "Government may not . . . undertake religious instruction . . . nor use secular institutions to force one or some religion on any person." In numerous other decisions the High Court said that public school systems may not aid religious groups to spread their faith. Public schools are government institutions and are not allowed to violate the establishment clause by forcing students to participate in activities that advance any one religion over another religion. Furthermore, teachers and administrators, when acting in those capacities, are representatives of the state and in those capacities are themselves prohibited from encouraging or soliciting student religious or antireligious activity.
After the initial incidents, Sue and her husband went to the school superintendent with their complaints.
"Swastikas," Sue said, "were drawn on everything that belonged to my children: books, bags, coats, shoes, and socks_everything, even their lockers."
She asked school officials how she could teach her children to be tolerant human beings and not bigots when they were subjected to outright religious persecution and bigotry in school. Obviously, the "Christians" in Pike County didn't live up to one of their own biblical teachings: "Love thy neighbour as thyself."
In spite of the Willis family's efforts to stop school activities that violated laws separating church and state, Sue said they were told that the harassment would stop if their family converted. According to the Alabama Radio News Network (Aug. 6, 1997), John Key, the superintendent of Pike County schools, thought that the complaints raised over the past five years had been resolved, and he denied charges that he responded to the parents' complaints by telling them to convert to Christianity.
In the lawsuit filed on behalf of the Willis family, the ACLU charged that (1) Pike County be enjoined from creating an established religion in the schools; (2) the children be protected from religious harassment; and (3) the children be allowed to exercise their religion and display its symbols. (The third item requested is related to Paul's being ordered to remove his star of David lapel pin. Key said that school officials might have mistaken the star of David for a gang symbol.)
Key also apologized to the Willis family for the "Why Jesus Loves Me" assignment and assured them that it would not happen again. After the apology, Key said that he learned that the assistant school principal had actually assigned an essay entitled "Why God Loves Me." Whatever happened, according to the existing guidelines regarding religion in public schools, it is understood that students may not be required to modify, include, or excise religious views in their assignments.
Sue Willis, who was born and raised Jewish in a rural part of Kentucky, had no idea that moving back to the South meant that she and her family would be forced to battle on the front lines of Alabama's religious war. In papers filed with the court, Sue Willis wrote, "Every day that I send my children to Pike County schools, I wonder if I am sending them into a war zone." Sue said that she had never experienced such religious persecution, and described how both she and her husband served in the military to fight for what they believed to be freedoms granted and protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Sue believes that the religious rhetoric of Fob James, governor of Alabama, has created more problems in regard to the issue of separation of church and state. Governor James is well known for his support of a judge who is fighting to keep a plaque of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. "In fact," Sue said, "on more than one occasion I've heard Governor James say that the Bill of Rights doesn't apply to Alabama, and threaten to use the national guard to keep the Ten Commandments in courtrooms." Despite heated battles waged by Alabama's religious majority to ify the establishment clause, cooler heads have prevailed.
Last spring, prompted by ACLU lawyers, Judge Ira DeMent struck down a 1993 Alabama law stating that voluntary student-initiated prayer, without administration interference, was legal (see Liberty, May/June 1998). The ruling of this U.S. district judge caused an uproar with Alabama's religious majority, and one school system, De Kalb County, refused to comply. However, in the case of Chandler v. James, Judge DeMent upheld his decision and ruled that public schools in north Alabama's DeKalb County could not promote religion. DeMent went on to devise a set of guidelines that prohibited vocal prayers at school events, including athletic events and graduation; devotionals; and Bible giveaways at the school by Gideons International. Fortunately, DeMent was also the presiding judge of the Pike County case, and this spring board members of Pike County approved a settlement with the Willis family.
"Certainly, the fact the case was in front of the same judge," said McCaffery, "must have entered their thought process." The settlement includes a long list of do's and don'ts on religion in public schools and follows many of the guidelines formulated in the De Kalb County decision. Copies of the settlement, along with these guidelines, were to be made available to school administrators and posted in all Pike County schools. Pamela Sumners, of the ACLU, said, "The Willis family was happy to reach a settlement and not have to subject their children to cross examination." However, Sumners expressed her concerns about repercussions the case would have on the family's community relations.
Since the settlement, the family still experienced a few incidents at the school. "But," Sue said, "at least now the incidents are immediately handled. And although there was a phase during which my children were ashamed or afraid of being known as Jewish, I believe the more harassment they experienced, the more they wanted to be Jewish."
Though the children are protected from religious persecution while on school property, they are still ostracized and mistreated by some in the community who see her family as trouble-makers trying to remove religion totally from public schools. But Sue sees herself and her family as simply joining the battle against efforts to blur or erase the line of separation between church and state. At first she believed she could make people of Pike County understand her family's religious beliefs. Now she hopes only that at least one person will be enlightened by the fight she and her family has had to engage in to protect their religious liberty.
"If you see someone trying to right a wrong, you need to help and speak out. If you keep silent, people think you are afraid of them or agree with their views."
As the outcome of this case relates to the issue of separation of church and state, McCaffery wrote: "It is always our hope that people in the religious majority will become aware there are equally sincere and faithful people in the religious minority, and they are deserving of the same respect as the majority. Between this and the Chandler case [of De Kalb County], we hope the schools in Alabama will honestly examine what really goes on in the classrooms and realize the only guarantee of religious liberty in this country is the removal of government from all religious functions. Many people have trouble seeing schools as a part of the government, but slowly, we hope, their awareness will be heightened."
Until government institutions (i.e., public schools) cease to allow themselves to be used to promote or enforce the religious practices of some religions over others, they will continue to violate not only the principles of religious freedom, but basic human decency as well.
Katherine Walton writes from Annapolis, Maryland.