Just how deeply and emotionally the issue of organized prayer in public schools still divides America — some 36 years after the Supreme Court ostensibly outlawed school-sanctioned prayers — was discovered recently by one mother in a rural Mississippi county. When Lisa Herdahl’s husband found work in Pontotoc County in the early ’90s, she and their six kids followed him there only to be shocked that there were intercom-led religious devotionals every morning at the local high school. A Christian church-bred woman herself, Herdahl protested to the school board, which shrugged it off citing a long tradition in Pontotoc of prayer in the schools. Her protests led to an intense ideological and legal struggle over the meaning of religious liberty in America.
Filmmakers Slawomir Grünberg and Ben Crane’s perceptive account of the events in Pontotoc, School Prayer: A Commuinity at War, airs nationally on POV, PBS’s acclaimed showcase of independent non-fictionfilms, on on PBS Tuesday, July 20, at 10 PM ET (check local listings).
As documented with respect and candor in this new film, Herdahl, who eventually took the school board to court, set off a protracted personal and moral battle that pitted her family against the overwhelming majority of Pontotoc. School Prayer: A Commuinity at War is a riveting report from the home front of a peculiarly American conflict. The individualistic Herdahl believes that the First Amendment, as interpreted by the Supreme Court in 1962 and 1963, protects her children from nonvoluntary participation in the prayers of others. Her opponents believe the First Amendment protects them from government interference in the practice of their faith. And in the end, both sides pay a substantial price for defending their respective beliefs and must find a way to live with each other if they can.
School Prayer: A Commuinity at War profiles the Herdahl family as they stubbornly cope with isolation, economic hardship and death threats. It takes us inside the homes, churches and schools of Pontotoc County, where people credit prayer with the idyllic life they lead in that part of Mississippi and reflect on the upheaval brought about by someone they regard as a newcomer and troublemaker, possibly an ACLU plant. The filmmakers struggled for 14 months to earn Herdahl’s trust, after which they still had to win the confidence of the Pontotoc community. The result is a surprisingly genuine and affecting portrait of the passions and soul-searching on both sides of this deep fissure in American life.
The school prayer activists of Pontotoc County, many of whom are students, say they are defending a way of life. The Rev. Doug Jones, pastor of Victory Baptist Church, who acts as the community’s spokesman; Lisa Gooch, who initiated intercom-led prayers when she was a student in 1978; and Pat Mounce, founder of the Citizens for School Prayer Committee, are all featured and represent their enduring faith in the efficacy of Christian prayer and the deep roots of a Christian America. Another defender of school prayer is William Murray, whose atheist mother, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, prompted the original 1963 Supreme Court school prayer case when she went to court on his behalf when he was 16.
On her side, Lisa Herdahl may be a newcomer but she’s not as different from the citizens of Pontotoc as they might believe. Far from being an atheist or militant secularist, Herdahl believes in prayer, in the home and at church. In her view, this is the American way and it protects her and her children from the religious impositions of others. She attracts high-profile support from national civil liberties organizations, including the ACLU and People for the American Way, and her strongest ally is the newly minted ACLU civil rights attorney, Danny Lampley. Lampley, a son of the South who had lately been accepting chickens and homegrown vegetables as payment from his poor rural clients, was the rare lawyer in Mississippi willing to take Herdahl’s case.
Ultimately, Herdahl and Lampley win their suit against the Pontotoc school board. But the conflict it engenders among neighbors remains. Herdahl refuses to move away from Pontotoc, and is threatened, forced to change houses, and finds herself virtually unemployable in the area. Her children are proud of her but her eldest son, Kevin, has been especially hurt by the controversy. The town, meanwhile, is bound by state law to pay Herdahl’s substantial legal costs of $144,000 — an enormous sum for this county of only 24,000 residents.
That they must raise money in their churches to pay for the legal actions that banned prayer in their schools is an especially bitter pill for the citizens of Pontotoc. At the same time, Pontotoc continues to encourage the convening of student-initiated prayers in its school auditorium ten minutes prior to the official start of classes each day. Despite the sacrifice on both sides, the question remains whether anything has really been resolved.
“Pontotoc is torn between the law of man as set down by the Supreme Court and the law of God as they understand it from the Bible,” says co-producer/writer Ben Crane. “The majority of people in Pontotoc believe that to respect the law of man in this case means to risk losing the moral backbone of their community.” Co-producer/director Grünberg adds, “Looking at this small Mississippi county reveals a bigger picture. Contention over religious freedom, such as occurred in Pontotoc, continues to fuel many of the world’s worst conflicts. To me, religious freedom means tolerance, but I know that’s not always easy. I myself come from a family of Jewish, Catholic, Russian Orthodox, and even atheist backgrounds, and I saw these kinds of conflicts happen in my own family. Resolving them requires taking the time to listen, and trying to understand other perspectives with tolerance and respect.”