Teenager Kaylee Cole is all too familiar with the experience of Bossier Parish families who object to the Louisiana public school district’s practice of violating students’ religious freedom through the widespread promotion of Christianity.

Kaylee lives in the neighboring school district in northwest Louisiana and, just a few months before Americans United filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Bossier parents, Kaylee and her mother, Christy Cole, filed a similar lawsuit against Webster Parish School District with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

This week, Americans United recognized Kaylee’s courage with AU’s annual David Norr Youth Activist Award “for steadfast commitment to religious freedom and the rights of conscience in public education.”

“It’s been our practice for many years to honor very special people at this time who have worked very diligently and at personal risk to achieve religious freedom and to maintain the separation of church and state,” said John Suarez, a member of AU’s Board of Trustees and chairman of the board’s education committee.

“Her case … is very similar to the Bossier case … and that parish happens to be next door to Kaylee’s parish. They both involve gross violations of religious freedom and church-state separation,” Suarez said.

Kaylee, who was joined by her parents, Christy Cole and Michael Simpson, and her ACLU attorney Heather Weaver, accepted the award during AU’s Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.

“I can’t even being to describe what an honor it is to be invited to such an event like this, but this award too, it’s overwhelming,” Kaylee told the crowd of AU chapter leaders, members of the board and National Leadership Council, and staff.

Kaylee, who is agnostic, spoke of her experience with compelled religious worship at her public school.

“I’ve seen my fair share of religion over the course of my whole life, and a lot of it is mostly due to my school,” she said. “Lakeside, much like a lot of the schools around my area, partake in religious proselytizing of Christianity. Being someone of no religious preference, I took offense to this and so did my family.

“There was morning prayer over the PA system, the rule that you were to stand while it was being said, Christian paraphernalia on the walls such as scripture, and many incidents over the years that resulted in a long list (of violations),” Kaylee said.

She said one of the most difficult experiences she could recall occurred in seventh or eighth grade when she and other students were in a gymnasium after lunch, waiting for afternoon classes to begin. It was the beginning of the school year and a student club called the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) gave a presentation.

Then, “They just decided to give a sermon right there. I was a Christian then and it annoyed me because I knew it was illegal.” Even more upsetting to her was the reaction of her agnostic friend: “I looked over to him and he was crying. He said flatly, ‘I don’t want to hear this.’ And I couldn’t do anything. They locked the doors. The teachers let it happen. I couldn’t do anything about it.”

Kaylee and her family finally reached a breaking point last year.

“This went on for the duration of my childhood and continued into my teenage years, with the concern in me that it would never get better. In December of 2017 with the ACLU, we officially filed a lawsuit against the illegal and unconstitutional encouragement of religion in our school district, Webster Parish – and won.”

Webster Parish School District in May signed a consent decree agreeing to stop promoting prayers during school events, organizing religious services for students, unnecessarily holding school events at religious venues and allowing school officials to promote their personal religious beliefs to students. The district also agreed to provide faculty training on the district’s obligations under the agreement. (Meanwhile, after months of AU trying to negotiate a settlement with Bossier Parish Schools, the district abruptly cut off talks with Americans United in September and our case is proceeding through the courts.)

Kaylee indicated the fight was worth it.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself this past year, mostly that I have a name and I have a face. I have significance in this world, and in the lives of myself and others,” she said.

To other people facing injustice, she had this advice: “I say speak up for yourself. Even if you live in a small town in northwestern Louisiana, with conservatives who have big opinions like you, someone will hear you. It’s important that you speak up, because you do matter.”

One more piece of good news: After she graduates this year, Kaylee plans to attend college at Louisiana State University at Shreveport and become a teacher. We’re confident she’ll be a strong advocate for her future students’ right to make their own decisions about faith and not be subjected to proselytism in her classroom.

(Photo: AU's 2018 David Norr Youth Activist Awardee Kaylee Cole, center, with her parents, Michael Simpson and Christy Cole.)