Last fall, when a coalition of youth ministries called for a “National Day of Student Prayer,” the event generated lots of participation and little controversy. More than one million students across the country took part in “See You at the Pole” prayer rallies held without problem on public high-school campuses (CT, Oct. 28, 1991, p. 54). Except in one small town.

School officials in Metropolis, Illinois, called in police to disperse six students who refused orders to break up their before-school prayer meeting. Two girls in the group were detained in a squad car for about 15 minutes before being released without charge.

The incident quickly became the subject of national Christian media reports, which portrayed it as an egregious violation of constitutional rights. But some local Christians see the event as a communication breakdown blown out of proportion, and they are critical of several national organizations for making what they say are inaccurate and exaggerated claims about it.

Focus on the Family radio, Sunlight broadcasting, the Christian Broadcasting Network’s “700 Club,” and other Christian media immediately reported the story. Last month’s Christian American, published by Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, led with a lengthy article headlined “Students Arrested at Flagpole Prayer.” In the same issue, Robertson pointed to the incident as an example of how Christians are “losing their right to express their faith” in this country. “These honor students were threatened with Mace and manhandled by police while praying beneath the very flag that represents our cherished freedom,” he wrote.

Lack Of Information

In the view of Massac County School District Superintendent Don Smith, who eventually issued an apology over the incident, most of the reports blew the incident “out of proportion” and failed to give the full story of what actually happened.

Smith told CHRISTIANITY TODAY that two students spoke with Massac County High School Principal Sidney Sexton and asked for permission to hold a prayer rally on school grounds before the start of classes. Sexton requested further information about the event, including who would be coming and what would be taking place. Though the students said they would get back to him, according to Smith it was the adult director of the town youth center who contacted the principal and “informed him there was going to be a public assembly and rally around the flagpole” on school grounds.

“None of the churches in our county knew about it,” said Smith, a Southern Baptist deacon. Because of the lack of information and because adults appeared to be initiating the event, the principal denied permission. When the students and adults from the community began arriving for the event anyway, the principal called the police. Though Smith said he regretted that the two students were placed in the squad car, he noted that they were never charged and were “not even late” for school. He also said the students were never threatened with school suspension or tear gas.

Daniel Knock, a Lutheran pastor and ex-policeman who witnessed the incident, also believes Christian coverage has been “biased.” Knock said that after he arrived, he discovered the students did not have permission for the meeting and warned them there could be trouble. The police physically unclasped the students’ hands after they refused to disperse, Knock said, but “acted in a very professional manner.”

According to Smith, permission would have been granted if the students had gone through the proper channels and presented more information about the event. He noted that the school board later discovered that a similar event took place without incident on the same day at another school in the district. He further emphasized that the religious nature of the event was not the issue, adding that the school has a Christian athletic club and an academic Bible club for students, and it has prayer at graduation ceremonies, teacher in-service meetings, and school board meetings.

Later in September, more than 70 students attended a second flagpole prayer event that was approved by the school officials.

Civil Rights

Nevertheless, Jim Henderson, litigation counsel for Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism (CASE), believes discrimination aimed at Christians did occur in Metropolis. “Maybe these students should have exhausted some tally of administrative procedures in the superintendent’s mind … but … the Supreme Court has held time and again that it is not necessary to exhaust all administrative remedies in order to vindicate one’s civil rights,” he said. According to Henderson, the youth worker got involved, not to initiate the event, but “because the students were being told to go blow.”

CASE was contacted by one student’s mother immediately after the incident. Chief counsel Jay Sekulow flew to Metropolis and addressed a meeting of the school board. A lawsuit against the school district was apparently averted when superintendent Smith issued a public apology, which he read before CBN cameras. Smith told CT that as a result of the media coverage, he has received more than 200 letters from angry fellow believers, one of which went so far as to call him a “killer of religion.”

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Other national Christian groups, including the Eagle Forum and the American Center for Law and Justice, have joined CASE in calling the incident an example of discrimination against Christians. However, after personally looking into the incident, Forest Montgomery, general counsel for the National Association of Evangelicals, said he believes much of it was based in “misunderstanding.”

“Too much involved here was people not willing to sit down and in a reasonable way listen to what the concerns were on the other side,” Montgomery said. “Too many Christians hear one side, rush to judgment, and don’t stop to get the whole story.”

What really happened in Metropolis may yet be decided not in media accounts, but in the courtroom, CASE attorney Henderson said his group still represents one of the girls detained in the squad car and is “contemplating civil rights action” against the police department.

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