When the possibility of a lawsuit against the Indian River School District and its school board arose in the fall of 2004, Rutherford Institute President John W. Whitehead told the Coastal Point his organization would in some respects welcome a suit that could go to the U.S. Supreme Court — just to finally have a definitive legal decision on the issue of school board prayer.
(The Rutherford Institute, a conservative civil rights group, had consulted with the board about its religion policies and had offered additional legal assistance were a suit to be forthcoming.)
Whitehead may soon get his wish, with a suit filed last week in U.S. District Court for the district of Delaware by the Dobrich family and the anonymous “Doe” family. The suit specifically cites the board’s common practice of board-member-led prayer at the beginning of each school board meeting and asks for relief.
The suit, as a whole, alleges a pattern of behavior in which school board members, district administrators and teachers routinely imposed religion on the district’s students.
While the Dobrich family’s formal complaints originated in daughter Samantha’s 2004 commencement at Sussex Central High School (SCHS), the suit goes on to extensively describe the Jewish family’s history of feeling excluded by religious expression in the school district since Mona Dobrich’s own attendance at district schools in her youth. She spoke of her feelings at a July 27, 2004, school board meeting.
“There was not a day that went by that I was not painfully aware that I was different. I kept waiting for that feeling to leave,” Dobrich recalled of her school years, before going on to describe her life as a parent in the district.
“I thought if I became more involved in the school than my parents were, I could make a difference. However, as (my children) progressed through each grade, I started to notice subtle changes. They too were beginning to feel like outsiders,” she said.
Dobrich’s son, Alex, in his own statement to the board at an Aug. 24, 2004, school board meeting, said he had was called “Jew boy” by his fellow sixth-grade students. Samantha Dobrich, the suit alleges, had heard Christian prayers from speakers at many school events, including academic banquets at which she was to receive awards.
But the final straw for the family came at Samantha’s graduation. The Rev. Jerry Fike of Mt. Olivet Church of the Bretheren had been asked by the district to give the invocation and benediction at the 2004 SCHS graduation exercise.
The pastor’s prayer at the conclusion of the ceremony was reported to read, in part, as follows: “We pray for Your direction in the lives of each of these graduates. As they enter the world that they use their gifts and abilities to serve you and humanity. We pray that You direct them into the truth, and eventually the truth that comes by knowing Jesus.”
The suit says Samantha was “startled” by the last sentence, “and scanned the crowd for her mother.” Mona Dobrich also heard those words, the suit says, “and saw the pained expression on her daughter’s face.” Dobrich complained to IRSD Superintendent Lois Hobbs immediately after the ceremony, saying the prayer had ruined her daughter’s graduation.
What followed were a series of complaints by Dobrich to district administrators and school board members, seeking to bring the issue to the board’s attention.
After a time, the issue was placed on the school board’s agenda, and it roused a tremendous response in the community, bringing hundreds out to one school board meeting — most of whom ardently supported religious expression at school events, many specifying the benefits of Christianity and even echoing the very words by Fike that had sparked the controversy.
The suit notes that Harold Johnson, a former school board member, ominously reminded those in attendance at the meeting about the disappearance of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that ended mandatory recitation of Bible verses in the public schools. Another person in attendance shouted at Alex Dobrich to remove his yarmulke when he rose to speak to the board.
Describing the impact of the public scrutiny on the family, the suit says Alex Dobrich was told by another child, “You killed Jesus.” The family home was called to warn the family the Ku Klux Klan was meeting nearby, according to the documents. Alex, it says, was fearful, avoiding wearing his yarmulke in public due to concerns the family would be targeted by police or that it would be torn from his head.
As a result, Mona and Alex Dobrich moved to the Wilmington area, with Alex enrolled in a private school and his mother taking a job to help with the additional expenses. Husband Marco Dobrich remained in residence at their Georgetown home, due to his job. (Samantha Dobrich is currently attending college.)
The son of the “Doe” family has also been moved to a private school from his IRSD middle school. The family joined in the suit anonymously to avoid retribution from the community and school district, the suit says.
Going on to describe other areas of district action (and inaction) that it asserts were part of the pattern of behavior endorsing a particular religious belief, the suit details the following allegations:
• prayers given or led by teachers and coaches at school athletic practices and events, and at academic events;
• prayers given or led by school officials or invited guests at commencement or baccalaureate events;
• students told by a science teacher that she did not subscribe to the “big bang” theory and referred to Bible Club to learn more about her beliefs;
• students allowed to opt out of evolution curriculum areas during science class — in favor of a special Bible club session and worksheet;
• special privileges afforded to students in lunchtime Bible clubs, including leaving class early to get their lunches, being allowed to cut to the front of the lunch line and receiving doughnuts from the coordinating teachers;
• the only equivalent activity to the Bible clubs — a book club — met only monthly and often not at all; “One student complained to her parents that her friends would go to Bible Club and leave her sitting alone at the lunch table. She felt pressure to join Bible Club. When one of her parents called a school official to discuss their daughter’s alternatives, the official insisted that the student could and should attend Bible Club.”;
• at least one elementary school in the district distributed Bibles during the 2003 school year, with school officials reminding students during class to pick up their Bibles and teachers dismissing students during class time to retrieve their Bibles;
• placing of religious fliers on students’ desks; and
• the school board’s practice of prayer prior to each school board meeting, which sometimes required attendance for some students who are to make presentations, accept awards or have private hearings before the board; prayers are generally given by one of several members and often invoke the name of Jesus or “Lord.”
The last issue may prove to be one of the most groundbreaking for any portion of the legal action resulting from the lawsuit.
Despite the board’s practice of reminding those in attendance at their meetings that their prayer is voluntary, and by and among only adult members of the board with no compliance required, the vast majority of the public in attendance at recent board meetings have indeed joined in the prayer — including students.
Thus the issue remains a source of concern for the plaintiffs and a possible venue for the board and supporters of its prayer to get a clear answer on its legality.
The Rutherford Institute’s Whitehead said his organization was awaiting a definitive case on the issue in the district court that serves Delaware. Other cases have been decided in other federal court districts, generally finding against school boards that include prayer.
Just last week, a case involving a southeastern Louisiana school board was adjudicated against that board, in a decision that delineated the difference in allowable practices by school boards versus those by legislative bodies.
In her decision in that case, Judge Ginger Berrigan said, “In officially promoting a religious practice at its governmental meetings, the board is doing what its schools and teachers cannot do, favor religion over non-religion and endorse particular religious faiths.”
Addressing children of minority faith and issues of peer pressure and isolation, Berrigan said, “Even without student participation, the board’s policy of opening with prayer is an endorsement of religion.”
Appeals are expected in the Louisiana case, and it could potentially become one of the first to definitively and specifically address the issue of school board prayer before the U.S. Supreme Court. If it does not, the case against Indian River School District also stands good chance of being appealed to the high court, regardless of lower-court rulings.
Beyond the basic facts of the case involving the district’s actions, the Dobrich-Doe suit emphasizes that the plaintiffs believe “the district has ignored complaints from parents and students about its practices, and has willfully chosen to ignore the law and its own written policies on religion in District schools.”
Dobrich, in fact, has repeatedly complained about the lack of public access to the policies the school board developed on graduation and baccalaureate ceremonies in the wake of her complaints, as well as about the lack of enforcement details and training for school officials and employees.
And her representatives emphasized that before filing suit, “the plaintiffs sought unsuccessfully to have their concerns addressed by School Board members at several School Board meetings. They also wrote letters to the School Board and to district employees, but received no meaningful response. … It was only when it became clear that the district had no genuine interest in reforming its unconstitutional practices and policies that the plaintiffs turned to the court to enforce their rights.”
Dobrich also emphasized that her problem with the district did not involve the true educational elements it had provided for her children.
“We appreciate and respect the teachers and administrators in the district that have contributed to our children’s education, and we were saddened by the district’s official reaction to our complaints,” Dobrich said. “We didn’t want a lawsuit, but at this point we feel we don’t have any other choice.”
While many of her detractors have complained that their own religious expression would quashed by Dobrich’s requests for accommodation, Dobrich said she doesn’t wish to prevent any student from expressing his or her own religious beliefs, or to prohibit teachers or school officials from praying when they do so in their personal capacity.
“We are not trying to remove God from the schools or the public square. We simply don’t think it is right for the district to impose a particular religious view on impressionable students,” she said.
When contacted by the Coastal Point, representatives of the Indian River School District and its board refused to comment on the suit, citing a policy of not commenting on pending litigation.