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Texas’ Santa Fe Independent School District is making headlines again with another suit involving religion. The school captured the nation’s attention in the summer of 2000 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against its practice of organized student-sponsored prayer at public school events on the grounds that it violated the separation of church and state in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe. On Feb. 21, the district settled a suit arising from alleged acts of religious intolerance against a Jewish boy. Details of the settlement are under seal pursuant to a court order. On behalf of their son, Phillip, Eric and Donna Nevelow sued Santa Fe ISD in federal district court in August 2000. The Nevelows demanded $5 million in damages for emotional suffering, alleging that from the time he was 11, Phillip had been harassed and threatened by other students because he was Jewish. Specifically, the complaint in Donna Nevelow, et al v. Santa Fe Independent School District, et al. alleged that Phillip was regularly called a “dirty Jew” on the school bus; was circled by students who taunted him with “No more Jews,” “Hitler missed one” and “He should have gotten you, too”; had swastikas scribbled on his books; was shoved into his locker by boys who had drawn swastikas on their hands; and had various objects thrown at him. In one incident, he allegedly was cornered by several students who threatened to hang him, called him a “dirty Jew” and told him to “wander the desert for 40 years.” That incident was reported to the Santa Fe Police Department as well as to school and bus authorities. The complaint alleges that no actions were taken by the school district to protect the youngster or to address the religious intolerance that was taking place. “The district turned a blind eye to the conduct,” the complaint alleges. It was not until the parents went to the police department and charges were filed, the parents allege, that the district took action against the students by suspending them. DISTRICT DENIES ALLEGATIONS In their answer, the defendants, among other things, denied that Phillip had undergone “harassment” since the seventh grade, denied that the district failed to assist him or to address allegations of anti-Semitism, and denied that they were “deliberately indifferent” to any complaints by the plaintiffs or caused the plaintiffs emotional distress. Galveston, Texas, attorney Anthony Griffin, who represented the Nevelows, also represented the Catholic and Mormon residents of Santa Fe who brought the Doe v. Santa Fe Independent School District case against the school district challenging its pre-game prayer ceremonies. In that case, the school district contended that the First Amendment’s freedom of speech provision meant that students could address the crowd before a game and say whatever they wanted, even a prayer. The individuals bringing the suit contended that condoning such prayers violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which prohibits government from promoting any religion. The case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 19, 2000, the Supreme Court outlawed the student-led prayer, 6-3. Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, declared that the policy was constitutionally invalid, encouraging “divisiveness along religious lines and threaten[ing] the imposition of coercion upon those students not desiring to participate in a religious exercise.” Griffin says that the Santa Fe school district’s struggle to defend its policy of pre-game prayer created an atmosphere conducive to harassment of those of different or minority faiths. “Phillip was a victim of the school prayer case,” alleges Griffin. “The [SFISD's] argument was that there was nothing wrong about [their] policy. … Part of their argument was that you can’t show any person who has been harmed by this, and, of course, our ‘Jane Does’ who brought the [pre-game prayer] lawsuit weren’t about to reveal who they were because we didn’t want to put their lives in harm’s way. And unbeknownst to us, but known to the school district at the time, was Phillip Nevelow, who was taking the brunt of all this,” Griffin alleges. Santa Fe school board president Denise Cowart, a member of the board for nine years, vehemently denies that the district’s fight to protect prayer before the opening of home football games created a climate of intolerance. “Do you also know that we were sued for not allowing students to pray?” she asks. Nonetheless, Cowart, a mother of three, in response to questions about Nevelow, says: “When you hear about something like this, my heart goes down to my feet. I like for the students to live together in harmony. They are the future.” She says that the board was not notified that anything was amiss until the suit was filed. Griffin says he is satisfied with the settlement, which he deems “significant, particularly in the context of the facts.” Cowart offers no comment on the suit, but adds she was surprised they sealed the settlement. The district is offering diversity training to both youngsters and teachers, Cowart says. “We’ve learned a lot and are moving forward,” she says. Lisa A. Brown of Houston-based Bracewell & Patterson, the attorney for the Santa Fe ISD who represented the district in Doe and Nevelow, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

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