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Suit Filed to End School Prayer in Mississippi School

December 20, 1994

OXFORD, Miss. (AP) _ A woman filed a federal lawsuit today demanding that the local school system stop forcing her children to pray and listen to Bible studies.

Seven-year-old Jason Herdahl has been taunted by other students since his second-grade teacher put headphones over his ears to drown out the prayers broadcast over the school public address system, his mother, Lisa Herdahl, said at a news conference today.

Herdahl, mother of five children, said the incident prompted her to try to remove her children from school prayer and religious activities at North Pontotoc Attendance Center in Ecru. She said she does not want to remove them from the school entirely.

The 1,300-student school serves grades from kindergarten to high school.

There was no immediate word on the family’s religious beliefs.

The lawsuit was filed by Mississippi American Civil Liberties Union and the Washington-based People for the American Way.

Public schools in Mississippi have traditionally allowed prayer over intercoms at the opening of the school day, saying that they do not violate the U.S. Supreme Court ban on public school prayers because students initiate them.

″We plan to vigorously defend our practices - we feel it’s constitutional and doing good for the students,″ Pontotoc school superintendent Jerry Horton said.

Horton said student-initiated devotionals are recited most mornings over the school intercom system. The practice has gone unchallenged for at least eight years, he said.

″We don’t consider it a state-sponsored prayer or force people to do it or listen to it,″ Horton said. ″The devotional prayer is student-initiated and controlled by students. The devotional is inspirational - for the good of the student body.″

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1992 that students could initiate prayer at graduation exercises.

Horton said lessons on the Bible were part of a course on Middle Eastern history that touches on Judeo-Christian beliefs.

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