Dec 03, 1999

Two national organizations have joined forces to challenge a Louisiana law designed to reintroduce government-sponsored prayer in public schools.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana filed suit today in federal court, charging that the state's new school prayer law is unconstitutional. The suit also challenges specific school-sponsored religious practices at West Monroe High School in Ouachita Parish.

"Public schools are not Sunday schools," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Government officials have no business interfering in the private religious lives of students."

Joe Cook, director of the ACLU of Louisiana, agreed. "No child should be made to feel like an outsider or a second-class citizen in a public school because of his or her religious or philosophical beliefs," Cook said. "Religious instruction belongs in homes and churches, not in a classroom where young people of many faiths gather."

At issue is an amended school prayer law that was passed overwhelmingly by both chambers of the Louisiana legislature last June and signed by Gov. Mike Foster on July 2. The measure altered an existing statute authorizing "silent prayer or meditation" in public schools every morning by striking the word "silent." The measure's legislative sponsor, Rep. Cynthia Willard, told the House Education Committee last May that she wanted to allow for "verbal prayer" in public schools.

In addition, the lawsuit challenges activities at West Monroe High School, where plaintiffs assert Christian prayers are regularly read over the loudspeaker. Two students have refused to participate, and one has been harassed and called a "Satanist" and "devil worshipper" by fellow classmates.

Plaintiffs in the Doe v. Ouachita Parish School Board case have elected to remain anonymous, fearing further community reprisals.

The Louisiana ACLU is the state affiliate of the national ACLU, a 300,000-member organization founded in 1920 that frequently litigates church-state cases to promote religious freedom. Americans United is a 60,000-member public policy organization, founded in 1947, that works to defend religious liberty by supporting the separation of church and state.