By: Todd Rourke Re: 'Football head' Suit Opposes School Prayer AP-NY-12-20-94 1834EST OX

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By: Todd Rourke Re: "Football head" Suit Opposes School Prayer AP-NY-12-20-94 1834EST OXFORD, Miss. (AP) - A 7-year-old was humiliated in class when he objected to hearing prayers in his public school, his mother said Tuesday as she filed suit to stop the religious practice. A second-grade teacher asked Jason Herdahl to wear headphones in order to drown out the prayers, and he was made fun of and called names like ``football head,'' Lisa Herdahl said at a news conference. Herdahl said the lawsuit was a last resort in her yearlong effort to eliminate prayer and Bible study from classes attended by her five children, who are in kindergarten through ninth grade at North Pontotoc Attendance Center in Ecru. She said her children were ``stigmatized by school officials, and teased and harassed by other students'' because they elected not to participate in Bible classes or prayer. She said they have been taunted so much that they no longer want to attend class. The school serves about 1,300 students from kindergarten through high school and is the only public school in the area. Prayers are fed into classrooms by intercom. Public schools in Mississippi have traditionally allowed prayer over intercoms at the start of the school day, saying they do not violate the Supreme Court ban on public school prayers because students initiate them. ``We plan to vigorously defend our practices - we feel it's constitutional and doing good for the students,'' Pontotoc school superintendent Jerry Horton said Monday. ``We don't consider it a state-sponsored prayer or force people to do it or listen to it.'' The school's practices are ``not even close to the line between constitutional and unconstitutional,'' said Judith Schaeffer of People for the American Way. The civil rights group and the American Civil Liberties Union sued on Herdahl's behalf. Herdahl said that, when her children entered the school in October 1993, she was told Bible teachers from various churches went to the school regularly and taught Christian principles to children in the lower grades. Herdahl said her children were baptized as Lutherans. ``I simply do not want the school telling my children how and when to pray,'' Herdahl said. ``Prayer is something that my children learn at home and in our church. It is ironic that in the name of religion my children are forced to face daily ridicule and cruelty.'' Over the past year, Herdahl repeatedly asked the school to stop sanctioning the teaching of religion. ``They never responded,'' she said, ``except to say they would deal with it at a further meeting. They never did.'' Jason only wore the headphones a few times, Herdahl said, ``because his teacher was disturbed by it and called me.'' Herdahl said the teacher told her that someone else had instructed her to put the headphones on the child.


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