Jan 23, 2019

Americans United scored a major win yesterday on behalf of students and families in Bossier Parish, La., after reaching a settlement agreement with the school board that protects all students regardless of their religious beliefs.

The settlement, which includes policy changes approved by the school board last week, will end a more than year-long legal dispute over the promotion of Christianity in Bossier public schools.

“This historic settlement is a victory for all Bossier families, and will ensure that children feel welcome and included in their own schools, regardless of what religion they do or don’t practice at home,” said AU President and CEO Rachel Laser.

“Bossier Parish allowed religious coercion to proliferate throughout their schools – that system will no longer exist and rigorous protections that are enforceable by law have been put in place for all students,” Laser continued. “We are thrilled that Bossier Parish Schools are now fulfilling the promise of religious freedom for all of their students.”

After several months of asking the school board to address religious freedom violations, Americans United on Feb. 7, 2018, filed a federal lawsuit, Does v. Bossier Parish School Board, on behalf of several Bossier Parish parents concerned about their children facing religious coercion from public school administrators, teachers and coaches.

Multiple religious freedom violations had occurred, including school events being held at churches or involving prayers as part of the official program; extensive promotion of religion within school athletic programs; teachers proselytizing in classrooms; and religious displays in classrooms and offices.

Last week, the Bossier Parish School Board approved a revised religious expression policy and agreed to a settlement with AU, which was filed with the federal district court yesterday. Provisions of the settlement include:

  • The historic creation of a monitoring committee to review and resolve potential violations or disputes involving religious freedom.
  • An agreement from the board to create, expand or seek out appropriate facilities to minimize the need to hold school events in houses of worship.
  • A commitment to protecting the rights of all Bossier students to pray in school, as long as the prayers are initiated by students, aren’t disruptive and don’t occur during class time.
  • Permission for Bossier teachers to teach about religion in an objective manner, but not proselytize students.

Americans United has always believed that public schools don’t have to be “religion-free” zones. We support the right of individual students to engage in truly voluntary forms of religious expression during the school day, and we don’t oppose objective instruction about religion in classes where it is relevant.

We do oppose anything that smacks of school sponsorship of religion or coercion. That’s what was going on in Bossier, and we’re pleased we were able to assist the families whose rights were being violated.

Our role in Bossier Parish isn’t over: As AU Legal Director Richard B. Katskee noted, AU will have a “sustained presence” there to ensure the monitoring committee is working as intended and Bossier students’ rights are protected.

“Nothing like this has ever been done before to safeguard religious freedom in public schools,” Katskee said. “As a result of our lawsuit, there is now a substantial mechanism in place for the next 12 years to oversee and ensure that Bossier Parish Schools comply with the law and protect the religious-freedom rights of all students and their families.”

Students nationwide can learn more about their religious freedom rights in public schools here. And anyone concerned about a potential church-state violation can report it to AU’s legal team here.