The Indian River School District Religious Persecution Case - Chapter Two


JewsOnFirst report on persecuted Delaware families sparks big response

Sympathy expressed for families' ordeal; harassers exposed

by JewsOnFirst.org, July 11, 2006


UPDATES: AUGUST 18, 2006

On August 23rd, we posted an update here. On August 18, the local paper Coastal Point published a report noting the role of JewsOnFirst in bringing national attention to the school district's behavior and the petition by the progressive bloggers. Click here

On July 29, the New York Times reported on the Dobrich and Doe families. Click here

In its July 2006 issue, Delaware Beach Life published a detailed, local-angle report on the school district's handling of the religion issue. Click here for the report, a PDF document.

On July 23, JewsOnFirst joined with with two blogs, CrossLeft and Talk2Action, to send a message of religious tolerance to the board of the Indian River School District in Delaware. The open letter addresses the case of the Dobrich and "Doe" families. To add your name to the letter, Click here.

On July 21st Coastal Point a local paper that serves the school district, reported that our June 28th report sparked "national interest" in the religion controversy in the Indian River School District. Click here for that report.


Links to articles and documents cited in our report appear immediately below it or below our June 30th report.

Our June 30th report about the Jewish family forced to flee a southern Delaware community -- and the "Doe" family who remained in anonymity -- because of religious persecution by the school district became an Internet sensation.

Today JewsOnFirst is reporting that the familes' lawsuit could become a Supreme Court test case for school board prayer policies. The Rutherford Institute, a religious right legal group, has been encouraging the Indian River School District board to take assertive religious stances. (See accompanying story)

The June 30th report, drawn largely from the Dobrich and "Doe" families' lawsuit against the Indian River School District's aggressive imposition of Christianity, was picked up and amplified by bloggers -- to the extent that a local paper reported that bloggers were writing about the district's treatment of the families.

As a result of the bloggers' work: we learned of a website encouraging harassment of the Jewish family; there was an outpouring of sympathy for the families, some of which came to us as emails from readers); and we learned of an absolutely appalling case of religious persecution in Oklahoma, (which you can read about here).

We were very pleased to get credit for our work, especially from Troutfishing, who posted on the Daily Kos that "Jews On First was the group that did the original reporting that laid the key groundwork that has enabled the wider blogoshpere to develop this emergent scandal..."

One of the bloggers writing about our story discovered that a religious right website, StopTheACLU.org, had posted the home address and phone number of the Dobriches, the Jewish family who fled Sussex County because of threats and harassment after it filed suit against the school district. The group was encouraging visitors to its site to harass the Dobriches because they believed (erroneously) that they were represented by the ACLU.

Richard Bartholomew, who writes the Salon-hosted blog Bartholomew's Notes on Religion broke this aspect of the story.

On July 3rd he wrote that the group, "Stop the ACLU," was bragging on its website that it had posted the Dobrich family's home address and phone number in order to "expose" them as ACLU plaintiffs. Habitues of the site were encouraged to call or write the Dobriches and express their anger over its interference with Christians' prerogatives.

Subsequent bloggers apparently attributed the departure of some members of the Dobrich family for the safety of Wilmington to StopTheACLU's attack. It is not clear that this is so. The complaint the family filed in their lawsuit against the school district does cite threatening encounters and phone calls as a cause of their move. But the StopTheACLU threat was posted in 2006, after the Dobriches fled Sussex County.

Nevertheless, we need to comment before continuing. Whether or not the StopTheACLU group was responsible for orchestrating the harassment leading to the family's move is not as significant as its intent. Imagine: terrorizing vicims of persecution to deter them from pursuing justice and judicial remedies! We also note that this tactic was used, to horrific effect, by anti-abortion zealots. And yes, we connect the dots: both the anti-abortion zealots and the Stop ACLU group are acting in defense of their versions of "Christianity."

We note that StopTheACLU has included in its instructions not to harass, threaten or use profane language, but, in these circumstances this is merely a legal disclaimer.

On the page targeting the Dobriches that, as of July 9th, remains up despite all the recent attention it's gotten, StopTheACLU states:

This case is a good time to introduce our "Expose the ACLU Plaintiff" project and here'is how it goes. When an individual, group or even church (yes, there are churches that support the ACLU) is using the ACLU (or similar groups like Americans United, People for the (Anti) American Way, Freedom from Religion Foundation and American Atheists) to facilitate removal of a cross, the 10 Commandments or other religious symbols or the ceasing of prayer from a school or government entity, we want the community to know about it. We will start with the Dobrich family which is largely responsible for this case being taken. We are offended that the Dobrich's want to impose their atheism at the expense of the vast majority of community members who aren't offended. We will let all of Delaware know who used the ACLU to sue this school district.

They (assuming there's more of them than Nedd Kareiva, whom Bartholomew and other bloggers identified) got it wrong, of course. The Dobriches are Jewish and the ACLU isn't representing them. Their attorney said the ACLU referred the case to his firm. As we noted in our June 30th piece, a raucous crowd at a 2004 meeting of the Indian River District's school board shouted down an ACLU representative who tried to speak.

A group identified as a "sister" organization to StopTheACLU.org, StopTheACLU.com, perpetuated the erroneous ACLU connection to the case in its report last March. The report noted approvingly that religious groups sang and prayed while the school board decided in executive session to reject an offer to settle the Dobrich's lawsuit. (Click here)

Bartholomew wrote that both Concerned Women for America and the Center for Reclaiming America for Christ, based at D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries, also celebrated the board's rejection of the settlement.

After Jesus' General engaged the the dot-org anti-ACLU group, Jay Stephenson of its dot-com sister had a go-round with Bartholomew, posted on Talk2Action, in which he wrote:

Assuming the original reports (http://www.jewsonfirst.org/06b/indianriver.html) are accurate, the mother and son apparently moved as early as late 2004. How could the 2006 publication of the address the father maintains have "driven" the family from their home in 2004 or played any role at all?

To that, the best thing we can add is Bartholemew's comment:

I must confess that it had not occurred to me that Kareiva might have been so incompetent as to post an outdated and therefore incorrect address (although in fact the exact date from which the family was allegedly split up cannot be discerned from the article), but in fact I never claimed that the posting of the address had led to the family’s alleged flight; it just seemed to me to be a significant bit of context worth including in an overview. Kareiva became a central issue only when he expressed his pleasure at having "had an effect" when told about the family's predicament. We can draw significant conclusions about him and his movement from that, whether or not he actually managed to get the address right.

Kareiva also insists that he is in no way anti-Semitic, being himself part Jewish. Stephenson, meanwhile, treats us to some rambling anti-Palestinian rhetoric in order to prove his own pro-Jewish credentials. Again, such an allegation was never made by me, although Kareiva's lack of concern about the family having been allegedly subjected to anti-Semitic abuse is telling. There does seem to be some surprising anti-Semitism in the USA (currently being dredged to the surface by Sacha Baron Cohen), but in this case Kareiva was simply unlucky that his target was Jewish. Had an atheist family been run out of town, no doubt it could be "justified" (to some) on the grounds that atheists are either Communists or extreme moral relativists. Pagans could be dismissed as devil worshippers, Muslims as America-haters, Hindus and Buddhists as stroppy immigrants. Christians who prefer private devotion over officially-decreed piety would simply be baffling. But, for obvious historical reasons, picking on a Jewish family throws the unpleasantness of certain actions into sharp relief; hence the popularity of the term "Judeo-Christian" on the US right.

Writing on Talk2Action and Political Cortex, Bruce Wilson provides additional interesting details on the StopTheACLU groups. He also posted a "Shaming Project" on Talk2Action.

The goal is to get bloggers who support the "Stop the ACLU Coalition" to state whether they support the impact of that coalition's efforts in Indian River (or the possible impact) or not.

The method is simple : email those members and ask them. Be direct, and be polite.

Blogger Jesus' General, who signs himself as JC Christian, posts his revealing exchanges with the anti-ACLU group and screen shots of its exposure of the Dobriches. A sample:


Nedd Kareiva
Scrabble Champion
Director, Stop the ACLU Coalition

Dear Mr. Kareiva,

Please allow me to be the first to thank you and the staff of Stop The ACLU for all you did to make the Indian River Pogrom such a resounding success. It isn't easy to run a Jewish family out of town in these politically correct times. Usually, they just hunker down, hiding behind antiquated interpretations of the Constitution and the good will of those who wrongly believe that non-Christians are entitled to all of the benefits of citizenship.

But this time, the family fled, and I think you deserve partial credit for making that happen. After all, you did publish their name, address, and phone number on your web site (see screen cap below) as part of your "Expose ACLU Plaintiffs" project. It certainly wouldn't be much of a stretch to say that such information gave people the tools they needed to drive the Dobrich family from their home.

Of course, you didn't do it all by yourself. The good god-fearing Christians of the Indian River School District deserve most of the credit. They took to the task of ethnic cleansing with a vengeance , not sparing anyone discomfort, not even the Dobrich children...

Kareiva wrote JC Christian:

Pogrom? I'm not sure I want to call it that. That is not an appropriate term, however, I am pleased that we had an effect in this case. We have others we want to put up on the site to shame them but have not gotten around to it. And I'm not so sure I can take credit for it. However, if an ACLU speaker was booed, that's music to my ears.

Daily Kos blogger Matthew Krell, at Street Prophets, took issue with the use of the term "pogrom" (and erroneously accused JewsOnFirst of using it). In the Tsarist days where the word had its source, it implied a violent government-inspired or -sanctioned attack on Jews. Krell suggests the more descriptive Hebrew term Sitnah, which he defines as harassment. To illustrate he relates a story from Genesis about the herdsmen of Gerar denying Isaac access to water wells, harassing him rather than offering customary desert hospitality.

Some of the other blogs that discussed our report include:

An outpouring of sympathy
Many people wrote to JewsOnFirst asking us to pass on their sympathy to the Dobrich and Doe families.

Christians were especially pained over the families' situation. One correspndent wrote:

I am so sorry to hear about the treatment of a little boy, Alexander Dobrich and his family by the school district in Delaware. I am not Jewish, nor do I need to be, to be appalled that anyone who claims to be an American citizen can be this ignorant of the right to practice your religion of choice, and that they would humiliate that little boy. God help us all in the face of such blatant ignorance as that displayed by the pastor, Jerry Fike as well as the members of the school board.

We have contacted the families' attorneys and hope to have information soon on how you can wish them well. We will post this information and also send it out in our weekly emails (which you can sign up to receive by clicking here.

Families Challenging Religious Influence in Delaware Schools

By Neela Banerjee, The New York Times, July 29, 2006

GEORGETOWN, Del. - After her family moved to this small town 30 years ago, Mona Dobrich grew up as the only Jew in school. Mrs. Dobrich, 39, married a local man, bought the house behind her parents' home and brought up her two children as Jews.

For years, she and her daughter, Samantha, listened to Christian prayers at public school potlucks, award dinners and parent-teacher group meetings, she said. But at Samantha's high school graduation in June 2004, a minister's prayer proclaiming Jesus as the only way to the truth nudged Mrs. Dobrich to act. Continue

The Power of Prayer

by Lynn R. Parks, Delaware Beach Life, July 2006

Betty Morris doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. When she went to school, she and her classmates recited and listened to Christian prayer. And she doesn’t see why, when it comes to prayer at a school event, the objections of the few who disagree with what is being said should make a difference. Continue

IRSD prayer suit draws plenty of attention

By Jonathan Starkey, Coastal Point (Sussex County, Delaware), July 21, 2006 Staff Reporter

Nearly two years after the Jewish Dobrich family complained about Indian River School District’s religiously “exclusive” environment, bloggers, civil rights organizations and discussion forums on the Internet have cast a national spotlight on the First Amendment case the Dobriches filed in federal court in early 2005.

A civil-rights Web site called jewsonfirst.org first posted a story about the Dobriches’ situation on June 29, which has sparked the national interest that at least one school board member finds puzzling. Continue

School Prayer at Commencement/Graduation and Baccalaureate Ceremonies

The Indian River School District's policy, posted June 2006. Click here for the PDF file.

Board Prayer At Regular Board Meetings

The Indian River School District's policy, posted in late June 2006, but dated October 19, 2004. Click here for the PDF file.

Indian River prayer debate stirs up blogs

By Sean O'Sullivan, The News Journal (Delaware Online), July 8, 2006

Several national Web sites this week -- including the popular Daily Kos -- began chattering about school prayer at the Indian River School District, an issue that's been on the U.S. District Court docket in Delaware for more than a year. Continue

Dobrich and Doe vs. Indian River School District
Plaintiff's First Amended Complaint

Caution. This PDF file is very large. Please click here.


Legal Analysis of the Indian River School District's Prayer Policy

by Stephen Rohde, July 11, 2006

The board's prayer policy is discussed in the article at the right, "Indian River School District could turn lawsuit against it into Supreme Court case"

Serious constitutional problems are raised by prayers at school board meetings. All recent court decisions considering challenges to prayers at school-board meetings have held them to be unconstitutional. See, Palo Verde Unified School Dist. Bd. of Educ., 172 Ed.Law.Rptr. 24 (9th Cir. 2002); Coles v. Cleveland Bd. of Educ., 171 F.3d 369 (6th Cir. 1999); Doe v. Tangipahoa Parish Sch. Bd., 2005 WL 517341 (E.D.La., February 24, 2005). See also, Wynne v. Town of Great Falls, South Carolina, 376 F.3d 292 (4th Cir.) (even nonschool-board legislative prayers are unconstitutional if sectarian).

In 2005, a Louisiana federal district court ruled that Tangipahoa Parish School Board's (TPSB) practice of opening meetings with a religious invocation violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. Since 1973, TPSB had opened its bi-monthly meetings with a prayer. The meetings were open to the public, including students.

The plaintiff argued that the practice was unconstitutional under the test established in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971). TPSB countered that the practice falls within the exception for legislative prayers enunciated in Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983). The district court declined to apply Marsh, concluding that the holding is "narrow" and "largely limited to its unique facts, the most important of which is the long pre-Constitutional history of beginning legislative sessions with prayer." The court found that the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently rejected applying the historical approach used in Marsh to public schools because "free public education was virtually nonexistent at the time the Constitution was adopted."

Instead, the court relied on the Sixth Circuit's reasoning in Coles v. Cleveland Board of Education, 171 F.3d 369 (6th Cir. 1999), that school boards are an integral part of public school systems and, as such, are subject to the stricter constitutional protections and prohibitions that apply in schools. Therefore, the court held, board invocations must be analyzed under the Lemon test. Applying this test, the court found that the board's purported secular purpose of solemnizing the occasion was "overwhelmed by the strongly religious—indeed denominational—tone of the prayers." The "overtly religious purpose" negated any secular purpose the prayers might serve. Given the overtly Christian content of the prayers and the fact that Christian clergymen led them, the court found, a reasonable observer would conclude that the board's practice also has the impermissible primary effect under Lemon of conveying a religious message.

The practice also failed under the excessive entanglement prong of the Lemon test, the court ruled, because it led to excessive entanglement in religious matters: the board chose to pray in its public meetings, chose the clergy members to deliver the prayers, and has had school officials, board members, and students deliver prayers as well.

That the Policy in question labels the prayer as "voluntary" or that students and others who are present "shall not be required to participate" fail to save the Policy from its unconstitutionality. The courts have repeatedly held that prayers in public schools are no less violative of the First Amendment just because the teacher or school authorities say they are "voluntary" or that students do not have to participate.

Likewise, the fact that the Policy offers a "non-sectarian" or "non-denominational" option "in the name of a Supreme Being, Jehovah, Jesus Christ, Buddha, Allah, or any other person or entity" hardly removes the First Amendment violation, since every time this option is not exercised, the official imprimatur of religion is affixed to the public meeting, where not only persons of every faith must feel welcome, but atheists and agnostics must likewise feel welcome.

Broadening the religious sweep of official prayers does not sanitize them of their essentially religious nature, which is precisely what the Establishment Clause prohibits in a public setting.

For each of these reasons, the Policy in question is highly suspect from a constitutional standpoint and would likely be struck down if tested in court. No community should advance the establishment of religion at public school board meetings held for the very purpose of designing public schools that welcome and are open to all families of every nationality, religion and creed.

Stephen Rohde is a constitutional lawyer and author of American Words of Freedom and Freedom of Assembly.

Indian River School District could turn lawsuit against it into Supreme Court case

by Jane Hunter, JewsOnFirst.org, July 11, 2006

Links for documents and sources cited here can be found either at the end of the accompanying article or our earlier article. Reports from Coastal Point newspaper do not link, but can be found in the archive section of the paper's website.

The lawsuit filed by the Dobrich and "Doe" families against the Indian River School District for imposing "state-sponsored religion" could become a test case for the new Supreme Court to decide school board prayer policies, a lawyer for the district told JewsOnFirst on July 11th.

Going that route could subject district taxpayers to prolonged uncertainty and considerable financial risk. The Rutherford Institute, a religious right legal group, has been encouraging the board to take assertive religious stances.

The District rejected an offer of settlement in the Dobrich-Doe case last spring, causing the insurance company providing legal representation to withdraw its lawyers and file suit against the district.

Right before the Fourth of July holiday, the Indian River School District, located in Sussex County in southeastern Delaware, posted a new school board prayer policy on its website that allows sectarian prayer by board members.

When asked about the policy, given the district's legal entangelements, Jason Gosselin of the Drinker Biddle & Reath law firm, who is defending the district in both the insurance case and the Dobrich-Doe case, said in a telephone interview that "different folks have different views of what can be appropriate."

Asked whether the district intends the case as a test case for the Supreme Court, Gosselin replied that the case "could be" a test case, although he himself is "not looking at the issue as a test case."

JewsOnFirst then asked Gosselin: "Is the Rutherford Institute whispering in the board's ear about a test case?"

According to the Dobrich-Doe complaint, in the summer of 2004, the Rutherford Institute gave the board a written policy on prayer. Its president, John Whitehead was reported by the Coastal Point newspaper to have said that he welcomed the lawsuit, because it might serve to put the issues involved to rest once and for all, with a possible decision from the U.S. Supreme Court."

Gosselin responded that "the Rutherford Institute is very upfront" about its positions. He also noted that a Rutherford-affiliated attorney, Thomas Neuberger, is the personal attorney of board member Reginald Helms.

When the insurance company stopped representing the district and Gosselin took over, the Coastal Point (May 5, 2006) reported Neuberger saying: "The rape of the Indian River School Board will stop. The ACLU now has a world class law firm to face. This is good news for the people of the Indian River School District." The ACLU is not involved in the case.

The Rutherford Institute has not yet given its promised response to JewsOnFirst's question: "Is your organization encouraging the Indian River School District to make the lawsuit a Supreme Court test case?"

During the telephone interview, Gosselin volunteered that he also has done pro bono work as an affiliate of the Rutherford Institute.

According to news reports and the Rutherford Institute, in 2004 Rutherford's John Whitehead attended a tumultuous district board meeting, during which a raucous crowd shouted down and vilified Mona Dobrich and her children. Whitehead encouraged the board to stick to its religious behavior.

Neuberger represented Helms in the Dobrich-Doe case until the individual board members were dismissed from the case. He was vociferous in justifying the board's rejection of the settlement.

Dobrich-Doe attorney focused on clients
Attorney Thomas Allingham, who represents the Dobrich and Doe families, told JewsOnFirst that his entire focus is on resolving the case for his clients and in "trying to establish an appropriate balance between the constitutional right to free speech" and the First Amendment's prohibition on government-established religion.

Gosselin said that the board did not reject the settlement because of the prayer policy it contained. "There were other provisions in the settlement presented to the board members as a package deal," he said. And, he added, there were several issues that were "problematic."

Rutherford affiliate Neuberger was quoted by Coastal Point (April 21, 2006) saying that one sticking point for the board was a requirement that it rename its "Christmas" and "Easter" breaks winter break and spring break.

Attorney Allingham told JewsOnFirst that his clients had agreed, as part of the settlement offer, not to challenge the board's prayer policy. He also said that board members had taken a substantial part in the settlement negotiations, which, at one point, did involve drafting a prayer policy.

Gosselin said that representatives of the board had attended the talks but had not been privy to the documents being passed back and forth. The board rejected the policy in February 2006 by a unanimous vote.

Indian River School District posts religion policies
At the end of June the Indian River School District posted on its website, its policies on religion regarding graduation and its own meetings. As we reported in our June 30th story, these policies had been inexplicably missing from the dozens of policy statement's on the district's website.

The local papers, apparently working from printed versions of the elusive policies, reported on how they were changed. The Coastal Point weekly noted that the policies were adopted in October 2004, but that the Dobriches and the Does nonetheless sued the district. (The injuries for which they're suing go far beyond the graduation and board prayer policies). The families' lawsuit says that the school board would not give them the text of the policies, even in response to a formal request.

The policy on prayer at board meetings is dated "adopted 10/19/04." There are no marks to indicate revisions made between then and its posting.

Gosselin said he believed the policy is one adopted by the board in June 2004. Allingham said he had no idea what the October 2004 date signified.

The Rutherford Institute's media officer took our question about the group's possible authorship of the policy but has not yet provided an answer.

The policy explicitly permits sectarian prayers. It says board members will give the prayer on a rotating basis and states that "such opportunity shall not be used or exploited to proselytize, advance or convert anyone, or to derogate or otherwise disparage any particular faith or belief."

Then it says:

Any such prayers may be sectarian or non-sectarian, denominational or nondenominational, in the name of a Supreme Being, Jehovah, Jesus Christ, Buddha, Allah, or any other person or entity, all in accord with the freedom of conscience, speech and religion of the individual Board member, and his or her particular religious heritage.

According to Stephen Rohde, a constitutional lawyer and author of American Words of Freedom and Freedom of Assembly: "Serious constitutional problems are raised by prayers at school board meetings. All the recent court decisions considering challenges to prayers at school-board meetings have held them to be unconstitutional."

Rohde, whose legal analysis of the school district's prayer policies appears in the left-hand column, wrote:

That the Policy in question labels the prayer as "voluntary" or that students and others who are present "shall not be required to participate" fail to save the Policy from its unconstitutionality. The courts have repeatedly held that prayers in public schools are no less violative of the First Amendment just because the teacher or school authorities say they are "voluntary" or that students do not have to participate.

Likewise, the fact that the Policy offers a "non-sectarian" or "non-denominational" option "in the name of a Supreme Being, Jehovah, Jesus Christ, Buddha, Allah, or any other person or entity" hardly removes the First Amendment violation, since every time this option is not exercised, the official imprimatur of religion is affixed to the public meeting, where not only persons of every faith must feel welcome, but atheists and agnostics must likewise feel welcome.

Broadening the religious sweep of official prayers does not sanitize them of their essentially religious nature, which is precisely what the Establishment Clause prohibits in a public setting.

Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak of JewsOnFirst finds the language of the board's prayer policy problematic. "The language is dismissive of other religions -- and reeks of ignorance and ethnocentrism," he said. "It assumes that representatives of other religions are as particularistic as these Christians. It also reflects the imperialism of their Christian viewpoint. And Jews don't pray to Jehovah. The term is insulting, reflecting one 19th century pastor's poor Hebrew."

The board's newly posted graduation policy takes the choice of speakers away from the board, which in 2004 chose a pastor who singled out graduate Samantha Dobrich for Jesus' attention. Students will choose the speakers.

The district's precarious position
Asked if the prayer policy, the prospect of a Supreme Court challenge, and the litigation with the insurance company were the actions of a prudent government, the district's attorney Gosselin replied: "People have different ideas of what's constitutional."

Gosselin said that the possibility the board could settle the Dobrich-Doe case "is never dead." And if that case is settled, he agreed that the insurance company's lawsuit (and the board's counter suit) could go away.

He also said he believes that the insurer's position is "untenable."