Prayer-leading teacher gets job back

Published 6:45 pm Thursday, May 27, 2010

MEADVILLE – A teacher released from her duties at Franklin CountyHigh School for holding classroom prayers was reinstated Wednesday,hardly 24 hours after receiving notice her contract would not berenewed because of her Christian infractions.

Algebra teacher Alice Hawley, 55, said the district’s decision notto renew her contract for the 2010-11 school year was withdrawnWednesday afternoon because the district could produce no evidenceshe was guilty of insubordination by refusing to halt her in-classprayers when asked. Hawley received an official notice ofnon-renewal signed by Franklin County School DistrictSuperintendent Dr. Grady Fleming on Tuesday explaining thedistrict’s intentions not to retain her services because of”continued and regular leading of (her) students in prayer duringclass” and “insubordination by failure to stop having class prayerafter being told to stop.”

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“They told me they didn’t have any documentation they’d asked me tostop praying, and I knew they didn’t because nobody asked me to,”Hawley said Wednesday night. “They were willing to reinstateme.”

Hawley, who has taught twice in the district from 1986-1993 andfrom 2004 onward, admitted to holding prayers with her students atthe start of class almost every day during the duration of herteaching career. She said each group of students is asked whetheror not they find prayer acceptable, and no prayers are held if anystudent objects. She said she gives students the option to objectto the prayers privately so pressure from peers will not be anissue.

This wasn’t the first time Hawley’s prayers have given the FranklinCounty district pause. She left the district in 1993 and took a jobteaching in nearby Jefferson County, saying a disagreement over herprayers prompted officials to remove her from teaching algebra andtransfer her to biology, a move she was unwilling to make becauseof the requirement she teach the theory of evolution.

Earlier this year, Hawley was informed an anonymous complaint hadbeen lodged about her prayers, but said no school or districtofficial gave her an order to cease. She continued praying with herstudents.

“Nothing else was said until I got word about a week and a halfago, my principal (M.D. Bilbo) called me to the side and said thesuperintendent … was not going to hire me back because of prayerin the classroom,” she said.

Hawley’s brush with non-renewal was quite a contradiction comingfrom Fleming, himself a church-going man not shy about his ownChristian beliefs. He didn’t comment at length when interviewedWednesday in his office, where a framed painting of Jesus wearing acrown of thorns sits on the desk at his right hand.

“I don’t give up my Christian beliefs, but I am also a governmentemployee,” Fleming said.

While federal law protects the right of students to organizeprayers in school, U.S. Supreme Court rulings prohibit teachers,principals and other school officials from leading prayers. Evenso, almost every school in Mississippi and other Southern statesbegin events like board meetings, football games and graduationswith Christian prayers.

It’s a point not lost on residents in deeply religious FranklinCounty, many of whom viewed the attempt to release Hawley forclassroom prayers as hypocritical.

“If they’re going to fire her for praying, they need to fire awhole lot more,” said Meadville’s Danielle Deemer. “This is aChristian town. Everybody here is a Christian.”

Bonnie Turner, who owns Mainstreet Video in Meadville, argued formore prayer in schools, not less. She shunned concerns that somestudents may feel pressured into praying along with their peerseven if they aren’t believers.

“If it was down in kindergarten or first grade, I could see wherethey would be intimidated, but not these kids. Not junior high andhigh school students,” Turner said.

Meadville’s Kienna Shaw called Hawley a “prayer warrior,” sayingher daily prayers may influence the Lord to spare FCHS the fate ofa school shooting.

“She’s making a difference. She’s putting a barrier of protectionaround that classroom,” she said. “I don’t play with God, and theyshouldn’t, either.”

Though Hawley’s position with FCHS was saved Wednesday, heremployment is still not guaranteed. She said contractsdistrict-wide have not been renewed, and she and other teachers mayfall victim to non-renewal because of funding concerns – a problemmany districts are experiencing in a most-lean budget year.

Hawley’s prayers could also spur another fight, as she has nointentions of stopping them.

“As long as my students would like somebody to pray with them, Ipray I will always be there to pray with them. I cannot refuse achild prayer,” she said. “It’s not about my job as much as it isgiving God the glory. He did for us and now it’s time for us tosend for Him.”