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In honor of the greatest moralist who never lived
Copyright © 2004 by Bill Becker

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The following article is the second half of a two-part report on prayer in schools, which appeared in the National Catholic Reporter in 1984. I carried it around for over 21 years, considering it too important to consign to the dustbin.

I was right. Today, hyper-fundamentalist Protestant Christianity—advocating the execution of blasphemers, homosexuals, and adulterers, for example—is a dominant influence in the Republican Party. Thus, the article is a timely resource for those who rightfully fear a new Inquisition if fundamentalist Christians "recapture every institution for Christ," as Reconstructionist theologian Rousas John Rushdoony put it in 1973.

The article is posted here with permission of the National Catholic Reporter.

National Catholic Reporter

March 16, 1984
Vol. 20, No. 21 (ISSN 0027-8939)

Prayer issue rips apart congress ... religious Oklahoma township

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Little Axe, Okla.

IN THE SMALL, rural community of Little Axe, Okla., a religious war is being waged about prayer in public school. It is not a battle between believers and nonbelievers, of the godly against the ungodly. It is people of faith pitted against people of faith.

At first glance, Little Axe seems an improbable place for a major constitutional battle concerning the First Amendment's religious establishment clause. Little Axe is not even a town. It is the name given years ago by the Shawnee Indians to a four mile wide, 15 mile long stretch of scrub land in Eastern Cleveland County, a few miles east of Norman, Okla.

But to those who live here, Little Axe is a tight-knit "community" bound together by ties of family and religion and bordered by the local American Legion hall, two small churches and the Little Axe nine-grade school system. Religion runs deep in this portion of the Bible Belt. The people are churchgoing, with a strong penchant for Protestant proselytizing.

Here Lucille McCord and Joann Bell, two local women whose children attended the Little Axe school system, filed a civil suit in 1981 to stop school officials from allowing religious services on public school property. The women, one a member of the Church of the Nazarene and the other of the Church of Christ, say they believe strongly in a religious education for their children.

"What we objected to in the Little Axe school system was the Baptist church flavor of the religious services," said McCord, a large, friendly woman whose three sons attended the school. "I don't trust someone who tells me that he talked to God while sitting on the edge of his bed. Or that Oral Roberts saw a 100-foot Jesus. I don't need that kind of religion stalking my children through their classrooms."

Little Axe reaction to the McCord-Bell suit was immediate. Bitter, often violent rage was directed against their families. Labeled "atheists" and "communists" by their neighbors, the two families eventually left the area after repeated threats on their lives. Both families settled in Harrah, a town near Oklahoma City.

Today the community's first anger against the suit has abated, but it continues to simmer below the surface as the case works its way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th circuit in Denver. Residents of Little Axe speak harshly of the Bells and McCords, or refuse to comment at all.

In Little Axe, the scars run as deep as the religion.

The Son Shine Club formed when a small group of students, most of them members of a Baptist halfway house called Christ Bars None Ranch, asked Little Axe teacher Rebecca Ernest to sponsor Bible-and-prayer sessions. Ernest agreed to sponsor the group before school in one of the Little Axe classrooms. The school board approved.

Most Little Axe students come to school on the bus, arriving 30 minutes before classes begin. Before the McCord-Bell suit, only students who wanted to attend the voluntary Son Shine Club sessions were allowed to enter the building before 8:30 a.m. On cold days, Son Shine Club attendance rose.

Said one student, who asked not to be identified, "They opened the gym for us, but it was cold in there. If you wanted to be warm, you prayed." The student added that he never attended the sessions.

Although only a handful of students regularly attended the club many pressured other students to come. According to Lucille McCord, "religious tension pervaded the school." Son Shine Club members accused Robbie McCord, Lucille's son, of being a "devil worshiper" because he listened to rock-and-roll music. A crucifix was hung upside down on his locker.

When the McCord and Bell children came home from school one day with Bibles that had been distributed in class, the two women decided it was time to talk to school officials about stopping both prayer sessions and Bible distribution.

"We bickered back and forth with the school, but it didn't do any good," recalled McCord. "We went to the state board of education. Finally, a sympathetic board member advised us to contact the American Civil Liberties Union. We wrote them, and they accepted the case."

The ACLU contacted the school board, informing them it would file a suit if the prayer sessions were not stopped. The school board responded by holding an emotion-charged "special session" on the prayer issue. They voted four-one to allow the prayer meetings to continue during a board meeting that was frequently punctuated by exclamations of "'Praise God."

"Joann and I went to the school board meeting," said McCord. "There were 300 to 400 people there, chanting 'atheists go home.'" One school board member handed out homemade placards to the crowd that read "Up with Jesus" and "Commies Go Home."

After the school board meeting, and the subsequent filing of the suit, unusual things began to happen to the McCord and Bell families. On Sept. 14, 1981, shortly after the suit was filed and the court had issued an injunction on the prayer sessions, Bell received a phone call telling her a bomb had been placed in the school. She notified the police and drove to the school to get her children.

As the children were being evacuated, a cafeteria worker spotted Bell and attacked her, smashing her head repeatedly against the car door. Bell was taken to the hospital. The cafeteria worker was later charged and fined a small fee in addition to Bell's hospital bills. The Little Axe community took up a fund to pay the cafeteria worker's expenses.

In response to the attack, a school board member, in a newspaper interview, said of Bell that "those who play with fire get burned." The Bells' trailer home burned to the ground Sept. 18, 1981. Fire marshals ruled it arson.

The McCords received hundreds of threatening phone calls and letters. When Lucille was mailed her own obituary, the family decided to leave Little Axe. They moved, leasing their Little Axe home in hopes that one day they could return. Only 12-year-old Jesse McCord returned frequently to the Little Axe property, where he cared for and groomed his pet prize dairy goats penned up there. Lucille McCord recalled the day she and her son returned to Little Axe to groom the animals for an upcoming competition. She remembers watching Jesse approach the pen, stop and begin to scream.

"He was hysterical, running back and forth trying to stop the bleeding," said McCord softly, glancing at her son. Jesse stared at the floor, lacing and unlacing his fingers. "Someone had slashed and mutilated the goats with a knife. Jesse's prize goat, the one that won the grand championship at the Oklahoma state fair, was the worst." A veterinarian managed to save the goats, but they would never win competitions again.

McCord grimaced at the memory. "When I began the suit, I just wanted to stop the religious services at school, but I supported the idea of nonsectarian prayer in the classroom during school," said McCord. "Since I've seen what religion can do to a community, I don't support any religious observance in school."

Little Axe reaction to the McCords' and Bells' plight was, and remains, cool indifference. Little Axe school superintendent Paul Pettigrew perhaps summed up the Little Axe attitude best. "The only people who have been hurt by this thing are the Bells and McCords. The school goes on," said Pettigrew. "They chose to create their own hell on earth."

The Oklahoma state legislature was winding up its legislative session March 1 with a heated debate about an amendment that would eliminate sexist language in a law that defined the man as head of the household. The debate was earning lively coverage in the local media, and in the halls outside the legislative chamber, legislators excitedly rehashed the previous day's debate. Two elderly legislators sat idly outside the legislative chamber, waiting for the last day's roll call and passing the time by teasing a young, female secretary about the amendment. The two men ridiculed the amendment, declaring it was "nitpicky." Everyone knows that marriage is an equal partnership, asserted one of the legislators, wagging his finger at the secretary. "Only an old reprobate would take the statute as gospel."

The young woman eyed the old man steadily. "There are a lot of old reprobates around here," she replied, and left.

The old men shook their heads after her, and laughed.

"She really believes all that stuff," said one.

The two men ambled off, nodding a greeting, to another legislator. The other legislator, State Representative Bill Graves, had won prominent mention in the newspapers after his role in the amendment debate. Graves had addressed the legislature, declaring that "the state is a religious establishment, and to change the wording of the statute is against God's law." Graves's sentiments were greeted with applause.

Graves also won media attention in his role as attorney for the Little Axe school district in the suit brought by McCord and Bell. Graves is author of the 1980 Voluntary Prayer Act, being challenged in the McCord-Bell suit.

The courtroom battles between Graves and the ACLU have been as bitter as the personal battles being waged in Little Axe. Graves, as attorney for the school board, argued the First Amendment clause supporting the right to free speech. Michael Salem, ACLU lawyer for McCord and Bell, argued the First Amendment clause prohibiting the establishment of religion. When the trial convened, both sides received less than they had hoped for.

In U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Thompson's March 11, 1983, decision, he ruled that the Son Shine Club activities were unconstitutional "in their present form." But, he added, the weekly meetings would be legal after the school day ended. Thompson also ruled that the Voluntary Prayer Act was within the bounds of the U.S. Constitution.

The Little Axe school board appealed; the ACLU counter-appealed. Both sides are now waiting for a hearing in the appeals court.

"The courts have gone way beyond where the Constitution intended them to go," said Graves, sipping a cup of coffee in his office at the Oklahoma City state capitol building. On one wall of his office hangs a picture of a white-gowned, rosy-cheeked Jesus smiling benignly down upon the Liberty Bell. On another wall hangs a picture of an American bald eagle.

"The Constitution was originally designed to protect us against a national church, and to avoid state churches," continued Graves. "The federal courts have so confused the church/state issue that it's time to clear the air. I wish (the courts) would just go back to the Constitution's original interpretation."

To do that, Graves said, the courts need to go back to 1791. During pretrial briefs, Graves asked judge Thompson to overturn every past Supreme Court ruling concerning prayer in public school. Thompson declined.

ACLU lawyer Salem scoffed at Graves's line of defense. "It's the Rip Van Winkle view of constitutional law," said Salem. "Little Axe doesn't like what the Supreme Court has ruled, so they ignore it. They believe that the best constitutional lawyer around is one you can bring back from 1791. Just wake him up or bring him back through a time warp, and have him tell you that because there was prayer in public assemblies in 1791, there should be now."

But religion is being taught, and sanctioned by government authorities, every day in school, Graves contended.

"A religious vacuum is impossible to maintain in schools," asserted Graves. "Religion is being taught in school now -- the only difference is that it's a 'humanist' religion.

"Our schools are teaching that man can save himself," Graves said scornfully. "Situation ethics it's called. Religion is in the schools now, it's just a matter of whether it's humanistic or God-based."

And God-based religion, Graves said, is what parents of Little Axe prefer.

"By ignoring God in school, you diminish the importance of religion in the child's mind," said Graves. "By omitting a subject, you teach a child that it's not important." If the school board should lose its appeal, Graves added, the case would only serve to unite people behind a constitutional amendment for prayer in schools.

Salem acknowledged that the case is volatile, but said he hopes it would serve to educate people about the law. "My clients are coming from the most conservative position possible, this is not some hot-shot liberal cause," said Salem. "They have the right not to have their children exposed to religious beliefs that they don't hold."

Salem, a Catholic, said the case has generated a lot of misunderstanding. Why, Salem's own mother had demanded, was he trying to take prayer out of the classroom. Salem smiled wryly. "The answer I gave her was 'Mom, they're Baptist prayers.' That shut her up. She understood immediately."

Ironically, the people who seem to be least affected by the school prayer issue are the children. Questioned during recess, several could not remember the controversy that has rocked their community for three years. Others said they remembered the prayer sessions, but neither they nor their friends had attended. Said one blond-haired boy with a big grin, "It was fun for a while, when the newspaper reporters came."

Little Axe school superintendent Paul Pettigrew said he is not surprised. "Only five to 10 children ever attended the sessions regularly," said Pettigrew. "The only time the prayer sessions were full was when the press came."

Pettigrew recalled the time a local television station arrived at the schoolgrounds in a helicopter, landing in the field adjacent to the school. The children went wild with excitement.

"Children who'd never been to church in their lives filed into the Son Shine Club and said 'Praise the Lord' for the television' cameras," said Pettigrew. "It was a circus. Next club session there were no cameras. And no children."

The Son Shine Club no longer meets, either before or after school. It is barred by court order from meeting in the mornings, and Pettigrew has asked them not to meet in the afternoons until the appeal has been decided. Few of the school's 1,000 students apparently have missed it.

"The only students disturbed by the court's decision are the handful who went to the sessions," said Pettigrew, who would not identify the students. "They're upset because the state is telling them they shouldn't talk about God on their free time. They wanted a place to meet and escape the gutter language of the playground.

"The school allowed religion to be practiced, we didn't establish it."

The school has gone through considerable change since the suit was filed. Since May 1981, 31 of the school's 41 teachers have left. Most resigned, Pettigrew said, because parents on both sides of the issue were entering the classrooms, monitoring and demanding changes.

"The case pulled apart the school, it was an unpleasant place to put your children," said Pettigrew

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