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School system settles bias suit filed by Jewish family

April 22, 1998

Web posted at: 2:52 a.m. EDT (0652 GMT)

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (AP) -- A school board in a southeast Alabama county voted to settle a lawsuit filed by a Jewish family who claimed their children were teased, mocked and forced to pray by Christian students and teachers.

Board members in Pike County, who approved the settlement Monday night, agreed to abide by a federal judge's ruling restricting coercive religious practices in public schools in a north Alabama county.

Wayne and Sue Willis, who live near Troy, filed a suit last year claiming their four children -- ages 5 through 14 -- faced harassment while attending classes in Pike County, where they were the only Jewish students.

Mrs. Willis, who was raised Jewish, and Willis, stepfather of three of the children, moved to Pike County from Seattle in 1991.

Many of suit's key allegations admitted

School officials admitted many of the suit's key allegations, including claims one of the boys was forced to bow his head during a Christian prayer and another of the children was told to write a paper on "Why Jesus Loves Me."

But the system admitted no wrongdoing in agreeing to the settlement, which must be approved by a judge and includes a lengthy list of the do's and don'ts of schoolhouse religion.

The family did not ask for any money, but the sides did agree to an undisclosed plan for paying the Willis family's attorneys.

"We're very pleased to reach an amicable settlement so the children and parents can go on with their lives and the schools can go on educating students," said Pamela Sumners, a lawyer for the family.

Donald Sweeney, who represents the board, said the settlement "will better allow the school system to use its resources and focus its attention on its education mission."

The settlement follows many of the guidelines laid out in a decision last year by U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent, who ruled that public schools in north Alabama's DeKalb County could not promote religion.

Prohibited activities include vocal prayers at school events, devotionals, and Bible giveaways at school.

Copyright 1998 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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Americans United American Civil Liberties Union Political Science Papers: Church and State