A young citizen solemnly intones, "I believe if you're a born-again Christian, then there should be no issue against prayer." An aging church patriarch explains that all of this discontent wouldn't happen if we could only return to "the morals and ethics of the 1950s." People wear T-shirts touting "Religious Freedom" and hold signs proclaiming "It's God's Way or No Way."
No, it's not a story about a Tea Party rally last week. Nor is it the minutes from a meeting of the board of Hobby Lobby. It's from Chris Herrington's 1999 Flyer review of a PBS documentary called School Prayer: A Community at War.
In 1994, Lisa Herdahl, a transplanted Californian (naturally), discovered that Christian prayers were being broadcast daily over the intercom at her child's Pontotoc, Mississippi, public school. Herdahl objected, saying that such compulsory or captive-audience prayers violated her constitutional right to freedom of religion. She was on firm legal ground, of course. But in Pontotoc, she was seen, as one local minister says in the program, as "a lady that's controlled by Satan, with many demonic spirits."
The show focused on the battle that ensued in Pontotoc. "Portions of School Prayer play like a live-action episode of The Simpsons," Herrington wrote. "Tortured reasoning and inane sound bites adding up to an accidental satire on quintessentially American knownothingism."
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) comes to town to defend Herdahl. They are seen, literally, as agents of Satan. The locals try to a) discern whether the ACLU attorneys are Jewish; b) decide whether Herdahl could possibly be an ACLU plant sent to stir up trouble; c) describe the ACLU as being "to the Christian belief what the Nazi was to the Jew."
The Simpsons or South Park: Take your pick.
And in a twist that could have been taken from last month's Mississippi Senate runoff election, this mutual enemy of Christianity brings blacks and whites together to fight Satan and protect the "right" to broadcast Christian prayers in school. For religious freedom.
An African-American minister, Anthony Collier, says that "the prayer case [brought] Pontotoc together like nothing else had. I don't recall ever being invited to a white church before this happened."
The Lord moves in mysterious ways.
The Herndahl case was eventually heard in an Oxford courtroom, where it was decided — not surprisingly — that Pontotoc's broadcasting of prayers over the intercom was a violation of federal law. Doh.
But, as Herrington concluded: "In Pontotoc, where God is a Republican, Old Glory is waved, and the town leadership (much less the typical high school student) lacks an understanding of basic civics ... easy solutions are hard to come by. For a small, religiously homogenous community with a deepseated skepticism toward outsiders, Herdahl's insistence on a strict legal reading of separation laws amount[ed] to an attack on a whole way of life."
One can only imagine what the current Supreme Court would do with this case.
Amazingly, 20 years later, the program could probably be replayed as a documentary about a current situation and no one would be the least bit surprised, which is one of the saddest sentences I've ever typed.