ACLU of Ohio Declares Victory in School Prayer Case
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio today announced that it has successfully resolved a five-month-old federal lawsuit against the London City School District. The suit, filed in June 1999, alleged that members of the London High School Coaching staff had engaged in an eight-year campaign of religious indoctrination with student athletes. The settlement, which ACLU attorneys have been quietly negotiating with lawyers for the district and the coaches since early last month, prohibits future acts of religious indoctrination, and sets up a system for reporting violations of the agreement to the United States District Court in Columbus.
For years, local citizens in London had complained that members of the high school coaching staff had been engaged in conduct which breached the First Amendment wall of separation between church and state. During discovery depositions held in the last two weeks, Head Coach David Daubenmire admitted to leading the football team in the Lord’s Prayer after games, to passing out a scriptural verse to team members, to allowing ministers to lead the team in prayer, and to the use of Bible stories as a part of certain team meetings. Daubenmire denied having engaged in such misconduct after November 1997, though witnesses told the ACLU that such conducted persisted into the fall of 1998.
London High School is a public school. Since 1963, the United States Supreme Court has held that public school employees may not engage students in religious activities without violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
The settlement comes just one day before the case was scheduled to be heard in Federal Court. Judge James Graham had set the matter for a hearing to be held today, October 19, 1999. The hearing was canceled yesterday afternoon, when attorneys agreed that settlement seemed likely. Yesterday evening, the London School Board voted unanimously to accept the terms offered by the ACLU. Lawyers for the Civil Liberties Union are calling the settlement a complete victory.
“We filed suit for one reason only, to put a stop to a long history of First Amendment violations at London High School,” said ACLU of Ohio Legal Director Raymond Vasvari today. “When it became clear that the school district and the coaches were willing to abide by the law, we had achieved our purpose.”
The settlement agreement, which has now been signed by attorneys for all parties, provides a mechanism to ensure that future violations of the First Amendment will not go unpunished. Under the agreement, the principal of London High School must report all complaints of religious activity not only to the district superintendent, but also to the ACLU. “This is really a remarkable settlement, because it keeps the ACLU involved in the process of monitoring compliance with the law for two full years,” Vasvari said. “Once we receive a report of misconduct, we have the opportunity to investigate it, and if need be, to report it to the Federal Court, who under the agreement will supervise compliance with the law until October 2001. “Under the terms of the agreement, violations of the Establishment Clause could result in a citation for contempt of court.
Vasvari calls the settlement a victory for London citizens as well as for the ACLU. “For the first time in eight years, parents can send their kids to London High School secure in the knowledge that the school district and its employees are taking the rule of law seriously.” A second agreement, previously ratified by the lawyers in the case, awards the ACLU nearly Eighteen Thousand Dollars in attorney fees and court costs. “The amount was a compromise, and somewhat less than what we feel we have earned” explained Vasvari, “but we don’t bring cases to make money or cash in on other people’s insurance policies,” a reference to the district policy which paid the ACLU legal bill. “We bring cases to protect the Constitution. We have accomplished that in London, and we’re proud of what we have accomplished there.”