In Louisiana, a School Prayer Showdown

In the Tangipahoa Parish School District near Baton Rouge, people are more passionate than ever about their desire to pray wherever and whenever they choose, although the courts have repeatedly told them to stop.

"Prayer should be kept in school," said resident Cora Monson. "The Bible should not be kept out."

"We're a parish that's really unified with God and with prayer," said resident Bryan Strickland, "and we believe that's the foundation of our moral values."

The district's school board regularly held prayers before meetings, but one anonymous parent got the Louisiana branch of the American Civil Liberties Union to sue the school district to stop. The school district lost that decision, but is appealing to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

It's just the latest battle in a long-running war between conservative Christians and those who see public schools as places that should remain secular.

"They've tried to promote creationism in the classroom. They had a preacher coming in, giving away free pizza at lunchtime, preaching and proselytizing students. And then we've had prayers at football games after the Supreme Court ruled against that," said Joe Cook, executive director of ACLU of Louisiana.

In February, U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan ordered the school district to cease prayer at school-sponsored events, but according to the ACLU, the school district has violated that order at least four times since then: when a teacher's aide led the Lord's Prayer for students during a school board meeting; when a man prayed over the public address system before a baseball game between two parish schools; and when a student at Loranger High School student recited a prayer to Jesus that a teacher had given him at the school's end-of-the-year banquet.

Cindy Benitez, public information officer for the school district, said, "We have conducted internal investigations on two of those matters." As to what the conclusions were, Benitzez said, "I do not have that information."

In the fourth instance, the ACLU presented the case of Cynthia Thompson -- a former student-teacher in the school district -- who said Pam Sullivan, a fourth-grade teacher at D.C. Reeves Elementary School, forced her students to pray to Jesus every day before lunch.

"It's just not right, said Thompson. "She would pray over them. She would bring her Bible to class, and she would recite Bible verses in the classroom."

Thompson voiced her objections to Sullivan and to her professor, and Thompson claims she was not given her teaching certificate as retaliation.

She is suing, with help from the ACLU. The school district has said the controversy was "a personnel matter" and was Thompson's fault.

"They are treating students as if they are a congregation ripe for picking and recruiting into fundamentalist Christian ideology," said Cook. "That's wrong."

Conservative Christians Flexing Political Muscle

Fights over school prayer have existed for decades. But in the current climate, conservative Christians are flexing their political muscles. The school board is getting some outside help from the Alliance Defense Fund, a powerful Christian legal group started by major evangelical figures like Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family.

"The ACLU has been on a search and destroy mission. They are down here to hunt down and obliterate all religious expression in society," said Mike Johnson, an attorney for the group.

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