Schoolprayer: A Community at War

A Mississippi mother of six sues her local school district to remove intercom prayer and Bible classes from the public schools. Christian community members rally against her to protect their time-honored tradition of religious practices in the schools. Both sides claim they are fighting for religious freedom. Read more below.

Emmy Award Winner documentary

‘The ACLU is to the Christian faith what the Nazi was to the Jew.’ Few viewers will fail to feel a chill when one stoic Mississippi resident proclaims. Evenhanded and never sensational, the film hold a mirror to religious intolerance and presents a complex, poignant and truly terrifying reflection.
David Bahr, TimeOut New York

A Mississippi mother of six sues her local school district to remove intercom prayer and Bible classes from the public schools. Christian community members rally against her to protect their time-honored tradition of religious practices in the schools. Both sides claim they are fighting for religious freedom.

In 1962 the Supreme Court ruled that school-sanctioned prayers and devotional Bible readings in public school classrooms are indisputably unconstitutional. This ruling is ignored every day, especially in the South.

Lisa Herdahl, is one woman who objects, and her case epitomizes the conflict. In her public school district, teachers have been leading children in Christian prayers and using the Bible as a history text. While Mrs. Herdahl accepts these practices in Sunday schools, she has sued to remove them from the taxpayer-supported school district of Pontotoc County. She is represented by attorneys from national civil liberties groups, while her opposition is supported by grassroots community donations and conservative Christian organizations.

Directed by:
Slawomir Grunberg

Produced by:
Slawomir Grunberg & Ben Crane

In association with:
Independent Television Service (ITVS)

Executive Producer:
James T. Yee (ITVS)

Jason Longo

Written by:
Ben Crane

Associate Producer:
Jane Greenberg

Slawomir Grunberg

Jason Longo

Additional Sound:
Jane Greenberg

Post Production Assistant:
Brian Truglio

Dr. Robert Alley, Dr. Jon Butler, Dr. Ronald Flowers, Dr. Isaac Kramnick, Dr. T.W. Lewis, III, Dr. Albert Mohler, Jr., Dr. Laurence Moore, Dr. Jacob Neusner, Dr. Nanette Roberts & Thayer Warshaw

Closed Captioning:
Pillar to Post

Pre-recorded Video Supplied By:
CBS News Archives
Cable News Network, Inc.

Special Thanks:
Terry Abernethy, Cherry Creek MB Church, Russell Cook, Ecru Baptist Church, Experimental TV Center, Grace Assembly of God, John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, David Helms, Sherry Miller Hocking, Jef Judin, Joseph Leeming, Allie Martin, Rob McDuff, Larry Miller, Jill Montgomery, Mississippi Educational Network, North Pontotoc Attendance Center, Brother Joe Shelton, David Simpson, Teleproductions Resource Center, University of Mississippi, Thaxton United Methodist Church, Victory Baptist Church & Jerry Williams

“Let Us Pray”
written and performed by Billy Nelson

Major Funding For This Program Provided By:
Corporation for Public Broadcasting

Additional Funding Provided By:
The Soros Documentary Fund
The New York State Council on the Arts


• Screen Justice – Documentary Films on Law and Society, University of the District of Columbia, Washington DC – screening and Q&A with director, 2006

• The Dean William Parks Colloquium at Christopher Newport University, VA – screening and Q&A with director, 2005

• Human Rights in Film IFF, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, 2001

• X International Documentary Film Festival Portugal, 1999

• Louisville Film and Video Festival Louisville, KY, 1999

• Athens International Film and Video Festival Athens, Greece, 1999

• Human Rights Watch Film Festival, 1999

• New York Lower East Side Film Festival, 1999

• Double Take Film Festival, 1999

• Leipzig International Film Festival, Leipzig, Germany, 1998


• Emmy Award Winner, Outstanding Coverage of a Continuing News Story, 2000

• Jan Karski Competition Winner, 2000

• Best of the Festival, Hope and Dreams Film Festival, 1999

• The Bronze Plaque, Columbus International Film & Video Festival, 1999

• A Bronze Award, Flagstaff International Film Festival, 1999

• School Prayer: A Community at War premiered July 20, 1999 on the PBS series POV

Emmy Award Winner : Outstanding Coverage of a Continuing News Story (2000)

Press Reviews

The heroine of “School Prayer: A Community at War” is Lisa Herdahl, a woman who took on a Mississippi town in her fight against the religious messages broadcast daily over the local high school’s intercom. But what makes this P.O.V documentary more then a familiar celebration of civil liberties is its portrait of townsfolk. Depending on a vier’s attitude toward such matters, they can be seen as a pious community trying to maintain deeply held values or as people who have done more Bible reading than reading of the Constitution.
Walter Goodman
The New York Times

We see all sides, with no self-righteousness. We also see how religion can end up dividing neighbors and wounding community.
John Leonard

New York Magazine

School Prayer is so fair to both sides, it actually might help them find some common ground.
Noel Holston

Minneapolis Star Tribune

The independent, non fiction films on PBS’s “P.O.V.” series usually make that acronym which stands for point of view-their mission, offering up reasons why viewers should lean toward one side of an issue. But a film airing at 10pm Sunday makes a point of not presenting one side over the other, and viewers likely will come away from “School Prayer: A community at War” with an appreciation for both sides.
Diane Richer
Denver Post

The P.O.V. film gives both viewpoints-in schools and churches, at protests and relies. The word is that the filmmakers present Southerners as people with sincere beliefs, not as stereotypes. That point of view alone should be worth seeing.
Gary Pettus

Audience Reactions

I appreciate that this was not a totally one-sided documentary, although it did seem to show some partiality to the ACLU. The ACLU is an organization that seeks to eliminate any public religious activity. Their spin has duped many fine but gullible people. They exploit fear and ignorance to advance their own frightening agenda. They use their enormous wealth and power to strong-arm the poor and timid. A quote from the documentary, “The ACLU s to Christians what the NAZIs were to Jews,” is not far off the mark.
Roanoke, VA

You said Ms. Herdahl and her family were “forced” to move. That is a complete lie. Ms. Herdahl and her family were renting a home on Highway 15 in Pontotoc County. The home a needed a numerous amount of repairs at the time Ms. Herdahl moved into it and the home owner told Ms. Herdahl that he did not feel like it would be worth it to do the repairs. Ms. Herdahl used the money from the ACLU (THEY DID PAY HER!) and purchased a new mobile home. I do not appreciate the fact that you are all so one sided. Our school district and Ms. Herdahl basically came to an agreement. You fail to mention on your website that while the prayers are still being done in another room, who happens to attend? Why, Ms. Herdahl’s children themselves go to these student led devotionals.
Pontotoc County

Thank you for the excellent documentary. I do not blame Ms. Herdahl at all for what she did. I respect her tenacity. I believe that the Supreme Court decided in Murray vs. Cuttlett that school prayer is unconstitutional.

Schoolprayer: A Community at War
An Educator’s Companion to the Film

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