Free speech brimstone

Jul 28, 1999 at 12:00 am

In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school-sanctioned prayer was a violation of the First Amendment. But obviously the residents of Pontotoc County, Mississippi, didn’t hear the news.

In 1978, students at North Pontotoc High School started their day by bowing their heads for a Christian prayer over an intercom. It’s what the ACLU calls "captive audience sectarian prayer." These prayers in the classroom – and Bible classes – had been taking place in the school for 50 years. Nobody complained about them until the early ’90s. That’s when Lisa Herdahl, her husband and their six children moved from Wisconsin to Pontotoc, a small, predominantly Christian community linked by dirt roads and dotted with white-steepled churches and Jesus billboards.

While sitting outside an office at North Pontotoc on the first day of school, Herdahl was shocked to hear a morning devotion coming out of a speaker in the hallway. She called the school to complain that her children were being forced to participate in religious prayers, but nobody listened. So Herdahl found an ACLU lawyer, Danny Lampley, who was willing to take her case to federal court.

The hourlong documentary, "School Prayer: A Community at War," gives a detailed account of the legal and personal battle between Herdahl and community leaders in Pontotoc. Both sides believe that their First Amendment rights are being violated. Pro-prayer community leaders argue that because 1,300 kids are willing to gather for morning prayers at school, it is undemocratic to stop the prayers in school for just one family. Ironically, they post red, white and blue signs that say "Religious Freedom."

Herdahl, a Christian herself, says she believes in prayer at home, but not in school.

The filmmakers, Slawomir Grünberg and Ben Crane (who is originally from Detroit), allow the scenes they record to speak for themselves without commentary on who’s right and who’s wrong. Then again, there’s enough of that going on in Pontotoc already.

The community’s school prayer advocates show a frighteningly militant and hostile attitude toward Herdahl and the ACLU. They accuse Lampley of taking the case for the money, when he lives and works in a small rented space furnished with a cot, a desk and an outdated computer. One pro-prayer parent sits in his living room and says, "The ACLU is to the Christian belief what the Nazi was to the Jew."

The film features one bizarre, paranoid tirade after another on the part of this Christian community. It makes me really glad that Pat Robertson never became president, as much as it brings home junior high history lessons on the separation of church and state. And I wonder if the same lessons are taught at the school in Pontotoc.

As cameras move into Sunday morning services at a local church, Brother Doug Jones is delivering a fervent sermon about the devil wanting to take people to hell. Later, when Jones says he suspects that the ACLU planted Herdahl in Pontotoc as part of some evil plot to stop the tradition of school prayer, I start thinking he means the devil is Herdahl. During a press conference, a local reporter even asks Herdahl if she is being funded by the ACLU. Another reporter smirks and asks an ACLU lawyer if she is a Jew.

In a local black church, the congregation sings about being on the battlefield for the Lord. The pastor says he believes that Herdahl is controlled by demon spirits. He also says that the war over school prayer has brought unity in Pontotoc, and that he doesn’t recall ever being invited to a white church before it started.

Back at the school, a Bible-school teacher leads some children in a drill where they look up and recite scriptures as fast as they can. She reminds them to put their hands to their sides and stand like soldiers. Then she reminds them that they are on God’s side.

To this community, life is a war against "evil." In their minds – no matter what the Constitution says – the ACLU is attacking their community and trying to create a God-free country. A guest speaker at a rally of Christians says that the ACLU is a criminal organization whose mission is to extort money from the people of Pontotoc to pay for mahogany desks, fancy cars, six-figure salaries and luxurious lifestyles. Another man at the rally prays that no money won from the case will go to any atheist, abortionist, lesbian or liberal causes.

"School Prayer: A Community At War" is real-life drama that plays out more like the movie The Apostle with guest stars from the Salem witch trials. When Herdahl receives a death threat in the mail that says she will not live to make it to court, I want to call her on the phone and tell her to high-tail it out of town before her house gets firebombed, that standing up to this town isn’t worth the personal risk.

But then I think, if it weren’t for people like Herdahl, we all might be reporting for morning prayer with Brother Jones. And that is, by far, a more frightening thought.