Herdahl v. Pontotoc County School District

Lisa Herdahl and her family moved from Wisconsin to the northern Mississippi town of Ecru in 1993. There, her family began attending a Lutheran church. Though Herdahl was a Christian and was raising her children to follow her faith, she was appalled to learn that the Pontotoc County public schools offered Bible classes and read prayers over the school intercom systems every morning. Herdahl told school officials that she would not allow her children to be involved, a stance that brought retaliation from teachers and students. In one instance, a teacher put headphones over the ears of Herdahl’s son during the morning prayers, prompting other students to tease him. In December 1994 Lisa Herdahl and her family took the school district to federal court with the help of attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way, a nonpartisan organization that acts to protect constitutional rights. The lawsuit provoked further harassment of the Herdahls, including angry letters to the local newspaper and signs opposing the case posted on virtually every house and business in Ecru. In addition, Lisa Herdahl received at least one death threat, and her convenience store received a bomb threat.

On 6 March 1996 Judge Neal Biggers Jr. of the US District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi found in the Herdahls’ favor, declaring that prayers in Pontotoc’s public school classrooms and over the intercom systems were unconstitutional. Bible history classes, however, were permissible as long as they did not endorse a specific religion or doctrine. Wrote Biggers, “The Bill of Rights was created to protect the minority from tyranny by the majority. . . . To say that the majority should prevail simply because of its numbers is to forget the purpose of the Bill of Rights.”

Further Reading

  • CNN website, www.cnn.com (3 June 1996)
  • Charles Levendosky, Casper Star-Tribune (27 August 1995)
  • Herdahl v. Pontotoc County School District, 933 F.Supp. 528 (N.D. Miss. 1996)
  • School Prayer: A Community at War, ITVS POV Documentary website, http://archive.itvs.org/schoolprayer/index.html
  • D. W. Steel, Oxford Eagle (7 March 1996)
  • Nadine Strossen, William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal 4, no. 2 (1995)
  • Charles Raymond Westmoreland, “Southern Pharisees: Prayer, Public Life, and Politics in the South, 1955–1996” (PhD dissertation, University of Mississippi, 2008)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Herdahl v. Pontotoc County School District
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date July 13, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 14, 2018