A school prayer lawsuit against the River Forest School Corporation in Hobart, Ind., sputters on.
Parent Jim Bellar told Chicago Tribune columnist Jerry Davich on Monday that he rejected a potential settlement because it didn’t require the school district to admit wrongdoing. Instead, he filed an amended complaint that now names the five athletic coaches that he claims are responsible for coercing players – including his son – into religious activity. (The column may be behind a paywall for some readers.)
In his original suit, filed by the ACLU of Indiana, Bellar claimed specifically that coaches led athletes in Christian prayer, that the school led Christian prayers at its graduation services, and that the River Forest school board delivered exclusively Christian prayers at its meetings. These practices are so pervasive, he said, that when his son objected to them, faculty and students promptly ostracized him and targeted him for prolonged bullying.“We did not do this for money,” he said in a previous interview. “We are looking for justice.”
“The practices that form the basis for the lawsuit are not the types of practices where reasonable people might disagree on their constitutionality,” Bellar’s ACLU attorney, Gavin Rose, added. “Under those circumstances, it is exceedingly unfortunate that a public school would choose to turn its own students into outsiders in this manner.”
Now, Bellar says he’s pulled his child from school.
“I believe he will have a better chance in life and a better education,” he told Davich this week.
“We have been to hell and back,” he added. “I know many people may not like what we are doing, but what if their kid was being bullied by coaches and teachers? I want them to understand there were a lot more issues involved than just prayers in school.”
That’s why he wants the school to own up to its mistakes. “I'd settle for the lowest amount of money if they will agree to that,” he said.
But Bellar may hope in vain. In his column, Davich argues that it isn’t likely the school will publicly acknowledge any wrong-doing; he may well be correct.
Regardless of the case’s outcome, the experience Bellar describes will sound familiar to many school prayer plaintiffs. They customarily face extreme harassment for their actions. Consider the Dobrich family, who filed suit in 2008 against Delaware’s Sussex County Schools after a minister proselytized students at their daughter’s high school graduation: They received so many violent threats they were forced to move out of town.
Then there’s the case of Jessica Ahlquist. In 2012, the Rhode Island high school student filed suit to have a Christian prayer removed from a place of prominence in the Cranston High School West cafeteria. She received so many threats she required a police escort from school. She, like Bellar’s son, eventually left school due to on-going harassment.
There are many other similar cases -- the Jesus Pizza saga is barely behind us -- and they demonstrate two important realities about public schools and the separation of church and state.
First, some public school administrators and faculty violate the First Amendment on a disturbingly frequent basis. The offenses almost without exception involve the promotion of Christianity to the exclusion of all other faiths and belief systems. Second, schools and communities often react badly when a student or parent complains about unconstitutional practices.
The First Amendment applies to all 50 states. The River Forest School Corporation is not exempt. Georgia’s West Laurens High School Marching Band is not exempt. Florence High School in Colorado, home of Jesus Pizza, was not exempt; neither was Cranston High School West or the Sussex County Schools.
These aren’t victimless crimes. When school administrators fail their responsibility to uphold church-state separation, students suffer. That should disturb any educator, but case after case demonstrates that many still place their personal religious convictions over the welfare of their students.
If that’s the case in River Forest, it’s hardly strange that Jim Bellar won’t go gently into that good night.