Friday, August 29, 1997

The Jewish gang problem in Alabama

A piece in today's NY Times on my favorite wacky governor Fob James led me to check the Alabama ACLU site, where I found the following:

Jewish Parents Sue Alabama School System For Persecuting Their Children

Thursday, August 14, 1997

MONTGOMERY, AL -- The Jewish parents of four public school students have sued an Alabama school system for violating their children's religious freedom, citing dozens of incidents when students, teachers and school officials persecuted their children for being Jews.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, which represents the family, argues that the Pike County School Board and administrators violated the constitutional right of the students to freely excercise their religion. In addition, the lawsuit says the district failed to stop the harassment, intimidation and threats to the students because of their religion and violated the constitutional prohibition against government endorsement of religion.

The lawsuit, filed August 4th in U. S. District Court for the Middle District in Alabama, was brought on behalf of the children of Sue and Wayne Willis of Pike County. Mr. and Mrs. Willis are Jewish and are raising their children in the Jewish faith.

The Willis children attend Pike County Elementary and Pike County High School. Over the last several years, the lawsuit says, their religious faith has been denigrated repeatedly by teachers, administrators and students. They have been denied the right to practice their faith while other students freely practice theirs. They have been denied the right to express their religious beliefs while repeatedly being forced to participate in overtly Christian assemblies and classroom activities.

The lawsuit further charges that the Willis children have also been the victims of religious bigotry and anti-Semitic hate crimes at the hands of other students. Faculty, adminstrators and school board members have done nothing to stop this persecution.

Mr. and Mrs. Willis have taken their concerns and complaints to all levels of school personnel and the school board during the last few years. Their efforts have been in vain. In response to a complaint from Mrs. Willis in April of this year, Superintendent John Key suggested that the continual harassment would end if the Willis family would convert to Christianity.

One teacher, in response to Mrs. Willis' plea, explained "If parents will not save souls, we have to."

The following are examples of the religious persecution suffered by the Willis children and the entanglement of the Pike County school system with religion. Included in the lawsuit are:

* The Willis children were forbidden to wear Star of David lapel pins. The teacher claimed the Star of David was a gang symbol. Other children in class were wearing crosses.
* The Willis children were forbidden to participate in physical education class while wearing their yarmulkes.
* Two of the Willis children have been physically assaulted by their classmates because of their religion. On one occasion one of the children was beaten by five or six other students.
* Swastikas have been drawn on their lockers, bookbags and jackets. Their yarmulkes, worn on High Holy Days, have been ripped off their heads and used to play "keep away."
* The children are constantly taunted with jeers such as "Jew boys" and "Jewish jokers." These verbal assaults are particularly venomous after blatantly Christian assemblies. Teachers and administrators have done nothing meaningful to stop these acts of cruelty and threats to physically safety, although they have repeatedly been made aware of them.
* The Willis children were ordered by teachers to bow their heads during Christian prayers, even though the teachers knew the children were Jewish. On at least one occasion a teacher physically forced one of the children to bow his head during the delivery of a prayer in an assembly. The prayer was explicitly Christian. The teacher knew the child was Jewish.
* A vice principal disciplined one Willis child for disrupting class by requring him to compose an essay on the subject "Why Jesus Loves Me."
* One Willis child was sent to wait in the hall during the distribution of Gideon bibles. Classmates called the child names as she left the room. A Gideon representative tried to force the child to take a copy of the Gideon bible and held a cross in front of her face when she explained she did not want one because she was Jewish. The child ran screaming back into the classroom, asking her teacher for help. The teacher did nothing.
* Religious, overtly Christian, classroom activities and assembly presentations are common in the Pike County system. Events like "Birth of Jesus" plays at assembly and "Happy Birthday Jesus" parties in classrooms make the Willis children feel like second-class citizens.
* One local minister, brought in to make a presentation at a school assembly, told the students that anyone who had not accepted Jesus as his or her Savior was doomed to hell. The Willis child in the audience left to jeers from her classmates. She suffered nightmares for weeks.

"These harmful and hateful acts are the product of a culture of religious bigotry which permeates the Pike County school system," said ACLU of Alabama cooperating attorney Pamela Sumners. "They have been perpetrated or tacitly endorsed by the very officials who are duty-bound to operate our schools in a manner which comports with the Constitution and morally bound to operate the schools so that all children are treated equally and with respect."

As Mrs. Willis explained in papers filed with the court, "Every day that I send my children to Pike County schools, I wonder if I am sending them into a war zone. Every day that I send my children to Pike County schools, I feel that the environment threatens every value that my husband and I have tried to teach them at home. I have asked school officials how I can teach my children to be tolerant human beings and not bigots when they are subjected to outright religious persecution and bigotry in school."

The Willis family asked the court to declare that school officials must recognize their right to freely exercise their religion and that school officials have a duty to protect students from harassment and threats based on religious animus. They have also asked the court to preliminarily and permanently enjoin the defendants from creating an establishment of religion.

The case is Paul Michael Herring v. Dr. John Key, Superintendent of Pike County Schools.

Copyright 1997, The American Civil Liberties Union

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