November 2018 Church & State - November 2018

AU Case Challenging Louisiana School’s Religion Policies Will Go To Trial Next Year

  Rob Boston

Americans United’s efforts to settle a lawsuit challenging a variety of school-sponsored religious practices in a Louisiana public school district collapsed in September after officials with the district abruptly pulled out of the process and canceled settlement talks. The case will go to trial next year.

Acting on behalf of local parents, Americans United sued the Bossier Parish system earlier this year over a variety of unconstitutional practices in its schools. (See “Getting Schooled On Prayer,” March 2018 Church & State.)

The lawsuit, Does v. Bossier Parish School Board, challenges a multitude of practices in the Bossier Parish Schools that violate students’ religious freedom, including: school events held at churches, often in sanctuaries or other rooms replete with religious iconography; school events, especially graduation ceremonies, including prayers as part of the official program; extensive promotion of religion within school athletic programs; teachers proselytizing in classrooms, including leading students in prayers; 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; teachers promoting   creationism in class; and religious displays in classrooms and ad­minis­trators’ offices.

After the lawsuit was filed, school officials expressed an interest in settling outside of court and signaled that they were open to altering their policies. Accordingly, attorneys with Americans United traveled to Loui­si­ana and met with the officials and their legal counsel to find an agreeable resolution. 

But those efforts fell apart after an incident at Bossier’s Benton High School in early September. A local Christian ministry that sponsors a fitness center that runs on donations called Christ Fit Gym had paid to have its logo painted on the school’s athletic field. The ministry’s logo features a cross and a Bible verse, and school officials, acting on advice from their attorneys, ordered the logo removed, reported the Shreveport Times

A ministry official, Billy Weatherall, threatened to sue if the logo were not restored. He also took the story to national conservative media outlets, which distorted it, generating significant outrage inside and outside the community. The parish school board met in a special session on Sept. 11 and ordered the logo to be repainted on the field. Members also voted to terminate settlement talks with Americans United.

The trial is tentatively settled for April 8.

Events took an even stranger turn about a week later, after U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) posted an item to his Facebook page asserting that atheists from California were planning to spy on students in the district.  “WARNING TO OUR FRIENDS IN BOSSIER SCHOOLS (please share),” read the post. “Last night, we received very credible information that atheist litigation groups in CA have contacted private investigators in our area to try to hire them to obtain hidden video of Christian student groups and activities at Benton High School and potentially other Bossier Parish schools.”

Johnson, an attorney who formerly worked for Alliance Defending Freedom, a Religious Right legal group, refused to answer the media’s questions about the startling claim. His spokeswoman, Ains­ley Holyfield, would only say, “In order to protect the confidentiality of private citizens, the congressman will not comment regarding the firsthand accounts relayed to him on this matter.”

Americans United said it has no idea what Johnson is talking about and noted that the organization has not hired private investigators to spy on students in Bossier Parish.  

Another odd development occurred last month, when Mike Mosura, a member of the Bossier Par­ish School Board, was arrested and charged by federal authorities with being part of a scheme to illegally distribute performance-enhancing drugs.

Mosura is charged alongside Brant and Julie Landry, a couple who are accused of selling steroids. Federal authorities assert that Mosura was aware that the drugs were being sold at a fitness facility where he worked.

Mosura, who is under indictment for one count of conspiring to distribute anabolic steroids, pleaded not guilty in a federal court Oct. 9.

Earlier this year, Mosura vowed to oppose Americans United’s lawsuit in Bossier, telling a local radio station, “We just have to stand strong.  You’ve gotta be willing to stand up and speak out. This is a minority.  This is four parents that have filed this suit through this group. Our system at last count had 22,000 students and climbing. So, do the math, and you’ll see this is a very small fraction, but it makes such a big noise, that our people in the tens of thousands can voice their concerns and get behind the board and support us that way.”

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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