A Delaware school district is reportedly being sued by its insurance company, which no longer wants to pay legal bills for a lawsuit over school prayer that the district refused to settle.
A Web site called JewsOnFirst.org, launched last October to counter “the growing strength of the religious right and the accelerating pace of its theocratic agenda,” published an article June 28 describing a 2004 lawsuit alleging the Indian River School District promoted Christianity so aggressively that a Jewish family felt it necessary to move to Wilmington, Del., two hours away. A second family joined the lawsuit as Jane and John Doe, saying they fear retaliation. A Weblog helped spread the story July 3.
Plaintiffs Mona and Marco Dobrich claim graduation was ruined for their daughter, Samantha, the only Jewish person in her 2004 senior class at Sussex Central High School, when an invited Brethren minister opened and closed with prayers offered in Jesus’ name. The benediction, the suit claims, also petitioned God to direct graduates into truth, including “the truth that comes by knowing Jesus.”
When the family asked the school board in a series of meetings to adopt a policy banning prayers in Jesus’ name, the suit says, the result was “mob behavior,” with hurled insults including “Go back up north!” “Take your yarmulke off!” and cries of “Amen!” and “Praise Jesus!” when Scripture was quoted in public comments.
The Dobriches’ sixth-grade son claimed he was called “Jew boy” and told he killed Christ. They claim he removed pins holding his yarmulke when the family shopped at the local Wal-Mart, fearing someone might try to snatch it from his head.
A former school board member at one point allegedly suggested Mona Dobrich might “disappear” like Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the famed atheist who went missing with two relatives in 1995. Their dismembered bodies were found in 2001. A community resident allegedly called the Dobrich home and said the Ku Klux Klan was nearby.
Because of the environment fostered by the school board’s policy, the family says it decided to leave. They refinanced their home to pay for a move and rented an apartment in Wilmington. They eventually sold their home of 18 years and enrolled their son in a private school.
They seek damages for “unconstitutional practices and policies” they say violate the First Amendment by establishing religion and denying their right to free exercise.
The 41-page lawsuit alleges that “school-sponsored prayer has pervaded the lives and activities of teachers and students in district schools.” The district, the fifth-largest in Delaware, enrolls 7,700 students and employs 1,000 adults.
In addition to graduation prayers, the plaintiffs allege, middle school students who attend Bible clubs receive preferential treatment, at least one elementary school distributed Bibles, athletic events and practices are opened with prayer and school board meetings and assemblies involve prayer, even when students are expected to attend.
A social studies teacher at a middle school allegedly told students there is only one true religion, and a science teacher explained to sixth graders she did not believe in the “big-bang” theory of creation and told them they would have to attend Bible club to learn more.
A school board member allegedly ordered a district employee to remove inclusive references to “winter” and “spring” break and replace them with Christian-specific references to Christmas and Easter.
School board meetings where the Dobriches sought remedy were opened with prayers in the name of Christ. The school board reportedly refused to accept a compromise of graduation prayers delivered in the name of God instead of Jesus.
The Indian River School Board voted unanimously Feb. 27 to reject a settlement offered by the plaintiffs, prompting the board’s insurer to file a sealed lawsuit in April seeking legal fees accumulated after Feb. 27.
In late June a U.S. district judge allowed both sides, for now, to keep the suit closed, apparently to keep details of the yet-unreleased settlement offer out of public view.
The ACLU sued individual school board members in February 2005 to stop them from opening school board meetings with prayer. The Rutherford Institute agreed to defend the board members.
The ACLU isn’t representing the Dobriches, but the Stop the ACLU Coalition publicized their home address anyway.
D. James Kennedy’s Center for Reclaiming America in 2004 praised the Indian River school board for its “brave stand” in resisting the ACLU.
Jan LaRue of Concerned Women for America considered it “one more example of the ACLU’s jihad to end public acknowledgement of the God of the Bible.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.