Feb 07, 2018

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today filed a federal lawsuit, Does 1-4 v. Bossier Parish School Board, in an attempt to end the widespread, unconstitutional promotion of Christianity throughout Bossier Parish, La., public schools.

Americans United filed the lawsuit on behalf of four Bossier Parish parents whose children’s religious freedom has been repeatedly and blatantly trampled by the religious coercion of Bossier Parish school board members, administrators, teachers and coaches.

These violations have occurred in school classrooms and offices; at school-sponsored events, including choir concerts, football games and graduations; and through activities involving school-sponsored extracurricular clubs and athletic programs. Children ranging in age from high school seniors to the youngest elementary-school students have been affected.

“Parents of all backgrounds should be able to put their trust in public schools to teach children reading and math – and to let families make their own decisions about faith,” said Richard B. Katskee, legal director of Americans United. “Unfortunately, that is not the atmosphere that Bossier Parish Schools provide. Even though the district educates a diverse community that includes all the people who come to the area to serve our nation at Barksdale Air Force Base, Bossier Parish school officials make one religion – Christianity – pervade all aspects of school life.

“Bossier teachers, coaches and administrators have put students who aren’t participating in these religious activities in an untenable position, making them targets for bullying and causing them to question their families’ beliefs,” Katskee said. “Americans United has repeatedly asked the district to create a more welcoming environment that does not promote any particular faith or promote religion over nonreligion. But school officials have refused to alter their practices. We now ask the courts to intervene on behalf of Bossier families who practice a variety of religions and faiths that deserve to be respected and protected.”

Americans United first contacted the district on behalf of a community member in June 2017, warning that student-led prayers at a May 2017 graduation ceremony at Bossier’s Benton High School were unconstitutional because they communicated the school district’s endorsement of a particular religion and coerced students to participate in a religious exercise. The district refused to end the graduation prayer practice.

After more community members came forward to express concerns about an array of additional constitutional violations in Bossier Parish schools, Americans United again contacted the district in a November 2017 letter. District officials have never responded.

The lawsuit highlights a multitude of ways that Bossier Parish Schools violate students’ religious freedom, including:

  • School events held at churches, often in sanctuaries or other rooms replete with religious iconography. These events have included choir and band performances, kindergarten and middle-school graduations, awards ceremonies and pregame meals for football players.
  • School events, especially graduation ceremonies, often include prayers as part of the official program. Prayers may be delivered by students or by school officials, and the speakers often compel students and audience members to participate by standing, removing their caps and/or bowing their heads. 
  • Extensive promotion of religion within school athletic programs, including team devotionals; coaches distributing Bibles and other religious materials to student-athletes and pressuring them to attend church and mission trips; pregame prayers led by pastors in student locker rooms; prayers over stadium loudspeakers during games; and postgame prayers led by coaches on the football field.
  • Teachers proselytizing in classrooms, including requiring students to recite Christian prayers or leading them in prayers; using Christian-themed videos to teach health classes; and telling a student that one must believe in Jesus to be a good person.
  • Official endorsement of Christian student clubs and community events, including teachers sponsoring Fellowship of Christian Athletes clubs and encouraging students to participate by handing out promotional materials in class; promoting Bring Your Bible to School Day through banners in schools and bible verses read over an elementary school public-address system; and allowing local churches access to students during the school day to distribute religious materials and invite children to participate in religious activities.
  • Teachers promoting creationism in class.
  • Religious displays in classrooms and administrators’ offices.
  • Choir performances that force students to sing almost exclusively Christian worship songs.

Does 1-4 v. Bossier Parish School Board was filed in the U.S. District Court in Shreveport. It also names Bossier Parish Superintendent Scott Smith as a defendant. The four parent plaintiffs are remaining anonymous to prevent further ostracism of their children.

The lawsuit was prepared by Katskee, AU Senior Litigation Counsel Eric Rothschild and AU Legal Fellow Alison Tanner with assistance from Louisiana attorney William P. Quigley, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.