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«Fordham Urban Law Journal Volume 24, Issue 3 1996 Article 5 Linking Genes with Behavior: The Social and Legal Implications of Using Genetic Evidence ...»

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Like many of our clients who protest government-endorsed religious exercises, Joann and Lucille are religious people. 33 Precisely for that reason, they do not want the government, in the public schools or anywhere else, promoting any religious exercise, a matter that they believe belongs within the sphere of their own churches (or other religious institutions), families, and individual

131. At the time she approached the ACLU to represent her in challenging the school's violation of her family's religious liberty, Joann Bell had no previous contact with the ACLU. Indeed, she came from a conservative religious and political background, in which the ACLU was at best unknown and at worst deionized. Since 1990, though, Joann has been the Executive Director of the ACLU's Oklahoma affiliate.

The silver lining to the cloud of Joann's heroic but harrowing struggle to defend the religious liberty of herself and her family is not only that she helped to secure religious liberty for everyone within the Tenth Judicial Circuit, but also that it led her to devote her energy and talent to defending the civil liberties of other individuals and families. As one journalist described Joann Bell and Lucille McCord, they are "'ordinary people' in the extraordinary sense of the word...." Rocky Scott, Prayer Ruling Unlikely to Resolve Hard Feelings, UPI, Dec. 11, 1982, BC cycle, available in LEXIS, News Library, Arcnws File. Also greatly deserving of commendation is the lawyer who, on behalf of the ACLU, represented Joann Bell and Lucille McCord on a pro bono basis: Norman, Oklahoma civil rights attorney Micheal Salem.

132. Bell v. Little Axe Independent Sch. Dist., 766 F.2d 1391 (10th Cir. 1985).

Teachers often attended, monitored, and participated in these sessions, which were advertised on classroom bulletin boards and devoted to "prayers, songs, and 'testimony' of students and other individuals concerning the benefits of knowing Jesus Christ." Id. at 1396-97.

133. See Scott, supra note 131:

Joann Bell was brought up in the Nazarene Church. Prayer sessions, 'giving testimony'-the practice of standing before others and speaking of religious experiences-and a strict moral code were a way of life. Lucille McCord has been a member of the Church of Christ for more than 40 years.... 'We try to live the Bible,' she said.


consciences. 134 As Lucille declared, "Leave the religion to me.' ' 35

Joann, Lucille, and their children are Protestants; from the perspective of the Little Axe School District, though, they were just not "the right kind" of Protestant, the kind that had supported the school-sponsored religious activities.

Joann, Lucille, and their children were verbally and physically assaulted for successfully championing religious liberty. 36 At trial, Joann and Lucille testified that their children were harassed and insulted by teachers and students for not attending the daily school-organized prayer meetings. 37 After the suit was filed, upside-down crosses were taped to the children's school lockers and a prize-winning hog that belonged to Lucille's son, who was active in the school's Future Farmers of America chapter, had its throat slit.' At school board meetings, Joann and Lucille were publicly vilified for their views on religious liberty.139 From the time the litigation began, they received numerous anonymous threatening telephone calls. They were also falsely listed on a "hot" check list at a local grocery store.

When Joann went to the school to check on her children after receiving news of a bomb threat there, she was attacked by a school employee, who repeatedly bashed her head against a car door and threatened to kill her.' 4' Joann was 42 hospitalized with a shoulder. She also lost a lot of hair.' sprained The worst was yet to come, though. Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, Joann's family's home was burned to the ground while she was attending her son's football game.' 43 Having received phone calls warning that her house would be torched, Joann is convinced that this was a case of arson.'" While investigators said that the fire was of a "suspicious nature," they also said they were unable to

134. Rob Gloster, Oklahoma Religion Suits Stir Bitter Feelings, UPI, Nov. 7, 1981, available in LEXIS, News Library, Arcnws File.

135. See id.

136. Id

137. Id.

138. Il.

139. Letter from Micheal Salem, attorney representing Bell and McCord, to Nadine Strossen, President, ACLU (Aug. 14, 1995) (on file with the Fordham Urban Law Journal).

140. Id

141. See Gloster, supra note 134.

142. Id.

143. Id.

144. Id.


1997] find evidence as to who might have been responsible. 4 5 Joann believes the fire was set by someone who took literally a remark made by Little Axe School Board member Elizabeth Butts. 146 Asked to comment on the school employee's assault against Joann, Butts had said, "People who play with fire get burned."' Joann's neighbors told her that they had seen a truck leaving the area of her home shortly before the smoke became evident.'" Joann believed that her' neighbors' description of this truck matched that of a truck driven by someone who worked for a school board member. Although both the Fire Marshall and the FBI told her49they thought it was a case of arson, no one was ever prosecuted.

To its credit, the Little Axe Volunteer Fire Department did show up at the fire. But, guess what? There was no water in their truck tanks, so they did not fight the fire. Imagine every single thing you own-every possession, every scrapbook, every piece of clothing, every family photograph and heirloom. That is what burned to the ground along with the Bells' home.' Joann, her husband, and their four children moved from Little Axe at the end of the school year.' 5 1 Joann's trial testimony underscored that, although she played a major role in successfully upholding constitutional guarantees of religious liberty, it was at an enormous personal cost for herself and her family. Fighting back tears, she testified: "I feel like we have been driven from the community.... People, I think, were ready to kill me if they could have gotten away with it.' The tragic experiences of the Bell and McCord families in Oklahoma constitute extreme examples, but alas only slightly more extreme than what many of our clients face when they dare to balk at government-supported religion in public schools. Let me cite another, more recent variation on the same theme, also involving a brave woman who dares to stand up for the religious liberty of herself and her children against a public school's attempts to inculcate religion. Like Joann Bell, she is a Christian, whose idea of ChristiId. See also Scott, supra note 131.


146. UPI, Dec. 8, 1982, available in LEXIS, News Library, Arcnws File.

147. I&

148. Letter from Micheal Salem to Nadine Strossen, supra note 139.

149. Id.

150. Id.

151. See UPI, supra note 146.

152. Id.

FORDHAM URBAN LAW JOURNAL [Vol. XXIV anity is that it is a private matter, and 153 the business of the govnot ernment or the government's schools.

When Lisa Herdahl moved to Ecru, Mississippi, with her husband and six children in 1993, she was shocked to learn that her children's public school sponsored regular religious activities, including daily prayers, Bible readings broadcast over the public address system, and a Bible studies class taught from a fundamentalist perspective. 154 When her children refused to participate in these school-organized religious activities, their classmates taunted and harassed them, calling them "atheists" and "devil worshipers." When a teacher put earphones on one of Lisa's sons to drown out the broadcast prayer and Bible55readings, other ' children started mocking him as "football head.' Because school officials repeatedly refused Lisa's requests to respect her children's rights, she turned to the ACLU to challenge the school's practices. 56 In 1995, the judge granted our motion for a preliminary injunction, enjoining the school district from transmitting the morning prayers and Bible readings or permitting student-led religious activities during school hours. 57 The judge found that Lisa's children could likely feel stigmatized for exercising their First Amendment rights to opt out of the school-sponsored devotional exercises, which he held unconstitutional. 58 In 1996, the district court permanently enjoined and restrained the defendants.

153. See John Burnett, Mississippi Parent Challenges School Prayerand Wins (National Public Radio Morning Edition broadcast, Apr. 19, 1995) (noting that "[t]he Hurdall's [sic] are practicing Lutherans who believe religion has no place in public schools").

154. Stephanie Saul, A Lonely Battle in the Bible Belt; A Mother Fights to Halt Prayers at Mississippi School, NEWSDAY, Mar. 13, 1995, at A8.

155. Id.

156. Id.

157. Herdahl v. Pontotoc County Sch. Dist., 887 F. Supp. 902, 912 (N.D. Miss.

1995). See also Burnett, supra note 153; Mississippi Mom Calls GingrichIdea "Completely Nuts," REUTERS, June 18, 1995, available in LEXIS, News Library, Arcnws File. In June, 1996, the judge issued an order permanently enjoining these schoolsponsored religious activities. 933 F. Supp. 582, 699-700 (N.D. Miss. 1996).

158. Herdahl, 887 F. Supp. at 911-12.

159. The permanent injunction reads as follows:

That each of the defendants and anyone acting in concert with any of them are permanently ENJOINED AND RESTRAINED from (1) transmitting or authorizing the transmission of devotionals, including without limitation the recitation of Bible verses and/or prayers, over the school intercom system; (2) authorizing organized, vocal group prayers in classrooms during classroom hours at North Pontotoc; (3) authorizing the teaching of classes known as "Bible" or "A Biblical History of the Middle East," in their past or 1997] RELIGION AND POLITICS Successful as Lisa Herdahl's defense of religious liberty was, life for her and her family became even harder after the lawsuit was started. As one press account reported, "[t]he lawsuit mobilized the community against Herdahl.' ' 16° Virtually every house and business posted a sign opposing the Herdahls' fight for religious freedom. Lisa says that she has been made an outcast in the community, with people whispering about her in grocery stores, and threats of organizing a boycott against the convenience store she managed. 161 She also received a death threat, and her convenience store received a bomb threat. 162 Lisa not only lost her job at the convenience store, but she also cannot get another job, due to the unpopularity of her defense of religious liberty; she has been described as "unemployable in the entire state of Mississippi," bepresent form, in any grade; and (4) authorizing the showing of the videotapes "The King is Born," "He is Risen," and "America's Godly Heritage" during American History classes; and That the defendants shall specifically direct all elementary teachers and other employees at North Pontotoc, and strictly enforce its directive, that they may not facilitate, participate in, endorse, encourage, invite or sponsor classroom prayer by students, including but not limited to designating, facilitating or assisting in designating, or enlisting individual students to lead vocal group prayer, delaying or slowing departure of students for the lunchroom to facilitate prayer, separating students who do and do not wish to engage in such prayer, or engaging in the conduct concerning the "Blessing for Lunch" contained in the instructions issued by defendant Flowers on or about January 3, 1995 as set forth in Exhibit P3; and That if the Mississippi State Board of Education does give final approval to the new high school course "Biblical History of the Ancient Middle East," the defendants may offer that course in those grades (9-12), but the defendants and anyone acting in concert with them are permanently ENJOINED from teaching that or any other or successor course concerning the Bible or religion in any manner that is not consistent with this court's decision and the United States Constitution. This includes but is not limited to the following: (a) the course must be taught objectively as part of a secular program of education; (b) the course may not be taught using the Bible as the only source of historical fact or as if the Bible were actual literal history; (c) students must be assigned reading from non-biblical sources of ancient Middle East history; (d) the course may not teach religious doctrine or sectarian interpretation of the Bible; and (e) the District shall not accept an instructor for the Bible course who has been approved for employment based in whole or in part on a religious test, profession of faith or criteria involving particular beliefs about the Bible in the selection process.

933 F. Supp. 582, 599-600 (N.D. Miss. 1996).

160. Saul, supra note 154.

161. Id

162. Telephone Interview with David Ingebretsen, Executive Director, ACLU of Mississippi (Aug. 23, 1995).

FORDHAM URBAN LAW JOURNAL [Vol. XXIV cause of the state-wide publicity about her insistence that her children's school respect their First Amendment rights.

The ostracism and worse reactions that are often faced by those who defend freedom of religion and conscience against governmental inculcation were indicated by an ACLU staff member whom U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun quoted in a Court opinion. 164 To illustrate the dangerous societal divisiveness that results from government-sanctioned religious exercises, Justice

Blackmun quoted Michelle Parish, who was then the Executive Director of the ACLU of Utah:

[Of] all the issues the ACLU takes on-reproductive rights, discrimination, jail and prison conditions, abuse of kids in the public schools, police brutality, to name a few-by far the most volatile issue is that of school prayer. Aside from our efforts to abolish 165 death penalty, it is the only issue that elicits death the threats.

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