November 2020 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

Public school officials in Smith County, Tenn., have agreed to stop sponsoring and promoting Christian activities in the wake of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Two families filed legal action against the school district for violating church-state separation by promoting religion and proselytizing its students. A federal court recently approved a consent decree to stop these activities.

According to the families, their children for several years were subject to several unconstitutional      ac­­tions in which the school district imposed Christianity on young students. Some of these actions            in­­­­­cluded school-directed prayer during mandatory assemblies, distribution and display of Bibles during classes, Bible verses posted in hallways and shared in notes from school staff to students, prayers broadcast through loudspeakers at school sporting events, coaches leading or participating in prayer with student athletes and a large Latin cross painted on the wall of the school athletic facility.  

Both of the families said they wanted the school district to respect their right to be nonbelievers. Leyna Carr, one of the children in the lawsuit and a student at Smith County High School, remarked, “At school everybody makes it seem like you have to believe in one thing, just like them. It is very awkward and uncomfortable. … I respect other people’s religion, and I would like it if everyone else would respect my beliefs.” 

The court approved a consent decree between the district and families that makes it clear that the school district can no longer include or promote prayer in any of its school events. In addition, school officials may not proselytize students or impose their personal religious beliefs on the student body.  

“The widespread promotion of religion by public school officials is a form of religious discrimination that alienates minority-faith and atheist students and makes it harder for them to access educational services,” said Heather L. Weaver, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, in a media statement. “Today’s victory is a reminder to school districts all over the country that public schools have no right to push religion on students or create a religiously exclusionary and hostile environment.” (Butler v. Smith County Board of Education