Public Schools

AU’s Top 10 Of 2019 – No. 9: Protecting Religious Freedom For Louisiana Students

  Liz Hayes

Editor’s Note: The constitutional principle of religious freedom has been undermined like never before under the Trump administration. This year we have seen unprecedented attacks on reproductive freedom and LGBTQ equality, and an erosion of church-state separation that threatens religious minorities and the nonreligious in America.

As the new year approaches, we’re taking a look back at the Top 10 church-state separation issues of 2019 – and how AU has led the charge against these blatant violations of our Constitution.

Americans United secured a huge win on behalf of public school students and families in Louisiana after negotiating a settlement agreement with the Bossier Parish School Board that ensures children feel welcome and included in their own schools regardless of their religious beliefs.

AU represented Bossier Parish parents concerned that their children faced religious coercion from public school administrators, teachers and coaches through multiple religious freedom violations, such as school events being held at churches or involving prayers as part of the official program; extensive promotion of religion within school athletic programs; teachers proselytizing in classrooms; and religious displays in classrooms and offices.

No. 9 Protecting Religious Freedom For Louisiana Students

When our requests to correct these violations were ignored, we filed a federal lawsuit on the parents’ behalf in February 2018. The district ultimately agreed to settle the case and, in a consent decree filed with the federal court in January 2019, the district acknowledged that some of its practices violated students’ constitutional right to religious freedom.

Provisions of the settlement included:

  • The creation of a long-term monitoring committee to review and resolve potential violations or disputes involving religious freedom;
  • An agreement from the board to create, expand or seek out appropriate facilities to minimize the need to hold school events in houses of worship;
  • A commitment to protecting the rights of all Bossier students to pray in school, as long as the prayers are initiated by students, aren’t disruptive and don’t occur during class time;
  • Permission for Bossier teachers to teach about religion in an objective manner, but not proselytize students.

“This historic settlement is a victory for all Bossier families, and will ensure that children feel welcome and included in their own schools, regardless of what religion they do or don’t practice at home,” AU President and CEO Rachel Laser said when the settlement was announced. “Bossier Parish allowed religious coercion to proliferate throughout their schools – that system will no longer exist and rigorous protections that are enforceable by law have been put in place for all students. We are thrilled that Bossier Parish Schools are now fulfilling the promise of religious freedom for all of their students.”

Bossier Parish was not the only place where Americans United worked to protect the religious freedom of public schoolchildren. Our legal department contacted districts around the country to correct an array of violations, such as teacher-initiated prayer lockers in Kentucky, graduation ceremonies held in churches in Georgia and baccalaureate ceremonies that included religious content in Pennsylvania. Anyone with concerns that their public school or community officials might be undermining church-state separation can report violations to AU’s legal department here.

AU also worked to expose Project Blitz, the Christian nationalist political campaign to undermine church-state separation by codifying the U.S. as a “Christian nation” and misusing religious freedom to license discrimination. The Project Blitz agenda this year especially focused on legislation aimed at coercing public schoolchildren to believe in the Christian god by requiring public schools to display “In God We Trust” and to teach Bible classes.

AU will continue to ensure public schools are welcoming, inclusive places for all students, regardless off their religious or nonreligious beliefs. Join us!

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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