In rural northeastern Mississippi, roadside billboards offer variations on spiritual deliverance: "Jesus Said Spread the Word!" "Troubled? Try Prayer."
But from 1994 to 1996, a new sort of sign joined those along the roadways in Pontotoc County. They were red, white and blue and bore the words "Religious Freedom." Hammered into the kudzu-covered countryside as well as on almost every front lawn, they were displayed in righteous fury against one transplanted woman who wanted to take prayer out of public schools.
The woman, Lisa Herdahl, viewed the signs with some irony. After all, she figured she was on the side of religious freedom and knew of a landmark 1963 Supreme Court case to bolster her cause.
But this was a community where ribbons in support of prayer were tied to the courthouse building -- and even the Piggly Wiggly market proudly displayed its stance on its tall signpost-cum-message board: "We support school prayer."
In Pontotoc County, it seems, as goes Piggy Wiggly so goes public opinion.
A federal court's decision in 1996 ultimately would decide the issue. But the events leading to and the aftermath of that ruling -- including Herdahl's travails and the community's deeply felt sense of violation -- are told in "School Prayer: A Community at War," airing Tuesday at 11:30 p.m. on WETA and Thursday at 10 p.m. and Friday at 1 a.m. on MPT.
"School Prayer," part of the "P.O.V." series of independently produced documentaries, comes at a time when the Supreme Court's outlawing of school-sanctioned prayer is again in the news. Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to permit the display of the Ten Commandments in schools, largely in reaction to the Littleton, Colo., shootings in April.
"With the ideas of faith, community, religion and how we raise our kids, we feel it'll resonate," said Linda Heller, the New York-based executive producer of "P.O.V."
"School Prayer" filmmakers Ben Crane and Slawomir Grnberg said they wanted to create a program allowing different segments of the Pontotoc population to express their views on school prayer. It seems everyone but Herdahl believes school is an extension of home and church life and should not be exempt from the influence of God. Not to be overlooked: A pupil, not an adult, had started morning prayers over the school's public-address system 20 years earlier, and no one had mounted a significant challenge since then.
Resident Pat Mounce, identified in the program as a "school prayer activist," said by supporting prayer in schools she is "defending [her] home" because prayer is "part of everything we do."
The Rev. Sonny Mills of the Grace Assembly of God echoed Mounce: "Our schools are not just a place for [children] to learn science and math, but also help to form their character in their early years."
The foundation among home, church and school must be uniform, Mills said. "If you don't [have that foundation], you've got to struggle. I'm teaching my children one value, and they're going to school and be taught something else, so there has to be a like-mindedness."
The film avoids the talking-head approach and instead shows school officials, ministers, local activists, the local and national media as well as children in everyday situations. People expound from school hallways, the pulpit, at roadside protests, outside a courthouse and at post-trial rallies.
This show-and-not-tell technique helps the filmmakers stay true to their desire for balance. Grnberg, however, issued a caveat: "It's impossible to be objective, and we know that. What we're avoiding is showing, for example, people in Mississippi who represent the Christian community in a way that presents them in funny, ironic caricatures," he said. "We know CNN would use these people, and they did because they stick out and are easy shortcuts in their reporting to portray the South."
Crane, an associate professor of communications at Ithaca College, and Grnberg, a native of Poland who has been a filmmaker in the United States for 25 years, worked on the film for three years, most of that time without a studio or production contract. They said it took more than a year to get Herdahl and many of those on the other side of the issue to participate in the film. Eventually, the New York Council on the Arts, Soros Foundation and Independent Television Service underwrote the filmmakers' $220,000 project.
"There was a lot of suspicion in the community, including [on the part of] Herdahl," said Crane. "Lisa had been harassed and received a lot of unwanted attention. So naturally she was cautious when she was approached by strangers. Also, there was the difficulty of [explaining] why someone from New York was interested."
Crane said he thought church and state issues were one of the "more divisive issues in the country. . . . I was looking for a microcosm of this larger national issue to tell the story of church and state separation on a human level. There were stories all over the country. I could have told a similar story in the Northeast."
Lisa Herdahl's teenage son, Kevin, might not agree. "In Mississippi, it's a different country from any other place in the United States," he says in the film. "They do it their way, and that's the only way they do it."
The Herdahls came to Mississippi from Wisconsin to find work, not to make a name for themselves. "Lisa was not looking for glory, that's clear," Crane said. "One of the things that might have helped persuade her to [talk to the filmmakers] was that she would have the opportunity to be heard, to tell her side of the story."
For her part, Herdahl says on camera that she was "raised in a Christian home." She does not want to forbid organized religion. She just does not think it has a place in public school.
"What about the Jewish children, or the Catholic children or some other belief, or no belief?" she says in the film. "Why do they have to listen to [prayer] over the intercom?"
The American Civil Liberties Union and the People for the American Way joined Herdahl's cause, raising suspicions among townspeople about her motivations.
Mills says in the film he thinks "the ACLU is to the Christian belief what the Nazi was to the Jew. I don't think there's any question about it."
Finding someone to support Herdahl's values on camera was fruitless, the filmmakers said. Pontotoc County, it seems, was looking for a devil to blame for the disruption of the status quo. From the pulpit, the Rev. Doug Jones (also of Citizens for School Prayer) tells his congregation that a watchful and active devil constantly is trying to ruin their lives.
This is happening, Jones continued, through lascivious popular culture and "a wicked and cruel government." And sharing in the devil's work are "filmmakers," he added.
"You can imagine how that felt," Crane said. "We were the only filmmakers in view and wondered if he was including us. But I must say he trusted us to a great extent, and we're grateful for that.
"I think Rev. Jones and other people in the area didn't necessarily want a piece that would promote their point of view, but they wanted to be able to speak for themselves, and they felt they didn't have that in national media."
In conjunction with "P.O.V: School Prayer," Maryland Public Television's half-hour "Newsnight Maryland" program will focus on the issue Thursday at 7 p.m. (repeats at 11:30 p.m.).
Additionally, filmmakers Ben Crane and Slawomir Grnberg have established a Web site (www.schoolprayer.com) to encourage people to express their opinions of the film and the issue.
"P.O.V." also has an Internet discussion site (www.pbs.org/pov).
CAPTION: Pat Mounce helps rally her community to preserve a cornerstone of their religious faith.
CAPTION: Lisa Herdahl sought separation of church and state.