from Ecru, Miss.
Students raised on fast-moving Sesame Street and experienced in channel-surfing are not known for perseverance. That's why what has unfolded in Ecru, Miss., is so remarkable.
The battle of Ecru began in 1994 when Lisa Herdahl moved from Wisconsin to the tiny hamlet. She sent her children to the North Pontotoc Attendance Center, a K-12 public school, and found out that members of a Christian club opened each school day with prayer over the school intercom.
Ms. Herdahl had been raised a Christian Scientist, and Christian prayer and Bible reading offended her. With help from the ACLU and People for the American Way, she sued.
The national media latched onto the story: Oprah, Today, 60 Minutes, and CBS This Morning all featured stories on the enlightened crusader who dared take on small minds and religious bigotry. When U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers issued an injunction against the devotionals--and a year later, in March 1996, ruled them unconstitutional--secularists far and wide rejoiced. The school had been purged of prayer.
Or had it?
As soon has the injunction was issued, the Aletheia Club, the Christian group responsible for the morning devotionals (aletheia is Greek for "truth"), asked if it would be permissible to hold prayer and Bible meetings in the gym each morning before school. The club received a go-ahead. Attorneys for the ACLU and PAW had bigger fish to fry, and many observers didn't think the morning meetings would last very long anyway. They were wrong.
Each morning more than 90 percent of the student body showed up for the student-initiated and -sponsored prayer meetings. Two years after the judge's injunction, about 1,200 of North Pontotoc's 1,300 students are still meeting together to sing, pray, and share Scripture.
The students' devotion to the meetings has surprised observers. Stacy Mattingly, a writer who covered the lawsuit and now lives in Ecru while doing research for a book about the proceedings, said, "A lot of people have been shocked by what these students have done. They think of typical American suburban kids and the idea of all that effort just to join together to pray seems unlikely."
Jerry Horton, Pontotoc County School superintendent, shares that surprise: "Right at the time of the injunction, with all the media attention, it didn't really surprise me. There were rallies held by the community in support of school prayer where almost the entire community would show up ... but now, after all this time, they're still going strong. And you have to remember, it takes considerable effort on their part. Just try getting 1,200 kids to go anywhere and do anything in an orderly fashion and you know what I mean."
The school has divided into two groups for the meetings. The children in grades K-3 meet in one building and grades 4-12 meet in another. The meetings, which are completely led by student volunteers, include Bible readings, skits, readings from devotional books, and songs.
The school board voted to start school 11 minutes later in order to accommodate the prayer-bent pupils. "This is a very rural area," explains Superintendent Horton. "Most of these kids don't have any other way to get to school except by bus. So we had to move the school day back from 7:50 to 8:01. In that short amount of time they have to get everybody inside, get quiet and have their meetings."
Students like the prayer meetings even better than prayer over the intercom. According to ninth-grader Miranda Andrews, "When we prayed over the intercom, people sometimes didn't pay much attention. People would talk and tell jokes.... Now it means something to us. We have to sacrifice to do it and people take it seriously."
Fellow Aletheia Club member Leah D'Mello adds, "At first we thought it might fizzle out, but people are still going, and they're a lot more conscious of what they do and more interested in church groups. It has definitely brought people together."
The irony of the situation has not been lost on the local community. Doug Jones, pastor of Victory Baptist Church, was in the middle of the school prayer fray from the beginning. As spokesman for Pontotoc County Citizens for School Prayer, he appeared on Oprah and has traveled across northern Mississippi raising support for the students. "A lot of people thought that they would roll over and play dead once that injunction was issued, but they were wrong.... I think they're more serious about it now," he explains. "It's really led to a spiritual awakening."
The brouhaha has had other effects as well. Superintendent Horton proudly points out that enrollment at North Pontotoc Attendance Center has gone up since all the publicity. "We don't get much growth around here. Normally around 40 to 50 students a year. We took in over a hundred new students last year, and I've heard quite a few parents comment that they've moved into the district because of the values this community holds dear."