One of the cases I’m researching for my book is called Herdahl v. Pontotoc County School District, case involving prayer and Bible classes in Ecru, Mississippi. Lisa Herdahl and her husband had moved their family from Wisconsin to Mississippi to be closer to his family and immediately discovered that the local schools were flagrantly violating the Constitution.
For starters, every day began with a prayer said over the school’s PA system, and they often had vocal prayers in class during instructional time as well. Some of the teachers would designate a student to lead a prayer before lunch each day. Anyone who didn’t want to participate in the pre-lunch prayers could step outside into the hallway, immediately singling them out among their classmates for ridicule.
The school also had a Bible class, which was overseen by a “Bible committee” made up of leaders from the local Protestant churches. The class was taught by someone chosen by the Bible committee, not a school employee, but the school provided classroom space and paid for books and other materials for the class. The Mississippi State Department of Education had actually already warned the school about the class and refused to allow them to grant academic credit for it, but they had made some changes to get it approved. The district court ruling explains how it worked:
In the elementary grades at the Center (K-6), the course is taught as a “rotational class,” alternating once every four days with music, library, and physical education. The Bible teachers come into the students’ regular classrooms and replace the regular teachers, who generally leave the rooms. Although the other rotational classes are required classes, the District has made an exception for the Bible class. Students who do not wish to participate are excused and may get up in front of their classmates and leave the classroom. During this period, the only alternative instruction for them is to be sent to another rotational class for their grade, which merely duplicates a rotational class they have already taken or will take, so that the children end up taking the same class twice. The plaintiff’s children who are subject to the District’s rotational class program are now excused from participating in the Bible class and are escorted to and from another rotational class by the teacher or assistant. The plaintiff claims that being singled out in this manner has exposed and continues to expose her children to harassment and ridicule, and they have been accused of being atheists and devil worshippers.
The court’s ruling was absolutely obvious:
The Bible class clearly lacks a secular purpose. From its inception by the local Protestant churches, the aim of the instruction has been overtly religious in nature. The District’s profession of educational instruction in this relevant time period of world history is belied by the evidence presented to the court at trial. First, the fact that the District contracted out the teaching of this class indicates an attempt at avoiding the constitutional ramifications of this instruction. If the class were truly secular, there should be no necessity of disassociating itself (and thus the state) with such a practice. The District cannot accomplish through others what it is forbidden to establish itself. Second, the selection procedures for the Bible teachers indicate a religious agenda unquestioned by the District. As the acknowledged “sponsor” of the Bible classes, the Bible Committee seeks out prospective Bible teachers for the public schools, interviews and then selects them, using religious criteria that have resulted in a teaching staff of Christian teachers who teach the Bible, and are expected to teach the Bible, from a fundamentalist religious perspective as the inerrant word of God.
When a Bible teaching vacancy occurs, it is the Bible Committee, not the school district, that initiates the hiring process, and it does so not by an open job search or through advertisements, but by personally soliciting names of potential teachers from the present and former Bible teachers. The District is well aware of this religious testing, and has to date not turned away any selected Bible teacher. Prospective Bible teachers are interviewed by the Bible Committee, and their religious beliefs and “salvation experience” of the candidates and their “personal spiritual background [and] beliefs about the Bible” are routine topics during job interviews. The chairman of the Bible Committee, Mr. Olen White, stated at trial that he personally believed that it was important for the prospective teacher to consider the Bible as literally true. It is also his understanding that the teachers who are currently teaching the Bible class at the Center are teaching their classes from the perspective that the Bible is literally true and without error. According to White, the Bible classes involve “reaching children for the Lord.” In a thank you letter to participating local churches, White stated that “without the help of the churches, the Bible program could not exist. Continue to pray for this work with our young people. They need all the Christian influence that can be given.” Reverend William Sims, a pastor of a local church and member of the Bible Committee, testified that he expects that a teacher of a Bible course would teach the Bible as the inerrant word of God. He further stated that if it came to his attention that one of the Bible teachers was teaching the Bible as if it were capable of error or that one of the teachers was not of the Christian faith he would not want the Committee to continue to fund that person’s salary. This religious testing, plainly imposed on prospective Bible teachers, alone makes the practice an unlawful intrusion into the school curriculum.
But here’s why I bring all this up. As often happens, there was a huge rally to defend this clearly unconstitutional behavior. A local Baptist minister organized the rally and 1500 people showed up. One of the speakers was Rep. Roger Wicker, now a U.S. Senator from Mississippi. Among the other things he said at the rally was this:
“Now I want to say this to the plaintiffs in this lawsuit: You could not have inflicted a deeper wound upon the souls, upon the very core of this community, than to do what you’ve done.”
Expecting the government-funded public schools to follow the Constitution is a deep “wound upon the souls” of the community. Forcing kids to listen to prayers they may not agree with, that’s perfectly fine. Singling out young children to be ostracized and called devil worshipers, that’s perfectly fine. But filing this suit is a deep wound. This is the essence of Christian privilege and Christian hegemony, which often ruthlessly imposes itself on everyone else and then takes terrible offense at the mere suggestion that no one should have to put up with it.