These are unsettled times in the courts with the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but it’s good to know that advocates of separation of church and state are still winning cases.
A recent example is from Smith County, Tenn., where two families, assisted by the ACLU, won a lawsuit filed against the public 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, over a period of several years, their children were subject to a number of unconstitutional actions in which the school district imposed religion 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 want the school district to respect their right to be non-believers. Leyna Carr, one of the children in lawsuit and a student at Smith Country High School, stated, “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 own personal religious beliefs onto the student body.
On behalf of several families, Americans United successfully challenged similar religious freedom violations in the Bossier Parish Schools in Louisiana. Last year we secured a settlement agreement with the school board that ensures protection for all students regardless of their religious beliefs.
It’s a shame that cases like this still occur. After all, the Supreme Court struck down school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in public schools nearly 60 years ago and has reaffirmed those decisions in subsequent cases. It’s important that our public schools focus on teaching, not preaching.
Here’s hoping that this ruling will make way for a more inclusive and tolerant school community in Smith County, one that respects the right for all students to have their own religious or non-religious beliefs. And let’s hope future Supreme Courts continue to protect important this important right.