Americans United in September demanded that East Baton Rouge Parish Schools in Louisiana stop including religious content in school programs and events after students and parents reported they were deceived into attending a school-sponsored, faith-based program at Living Faith Christian Center disguised as a “college and career fair.”
During the Sept. 20 event, students and families reported students were divided by gender, resulting in harassment and discomfort for transgender and nonbinary students. Female students reported they were proselytized by speakers promoting purity culture and traumatized by graphic discussions of suicide. Parents said they were not informed the program was at a church or would include religious content.
In a letter sent to the district Sept. 23, Americans United explained how the district’s involvement in the program violated the Constitution and the religious freedom of students and families.
“Public schools exist to serve all schoolchildren and their families regardless of faith or belief and must be welcoming to all,” the AU letter reminded the district. “The inclusion of prayer and proselytizing religious messages at an official school event conveys disrespect for students’ and families’ beliefs and sends the message that students who do not practice the officially favored faith or participate in these religious activities are unwelcome outsiders who do not belong.”
AU President and CEO Rachel Laser criticized the event in a media statement.
“Public schools are responsible for the secular education of our children, not indoctrinating them in specific religious beliefs,” Laser said. “No parent should be tricked into signing a permission slip that results in their child attending a religious event where students are forced to sit through proselytizing sermons and speeches, under the guise of getting career and college advice.”
Laser added, “The constitutional promise of separation of church and state requires East Baton Rouge Parish Schools to provide a welcoming, inclusive learning environment that serves all children and families, regardless of their religious beliefs. The school district failed with this program. It owes its families an apology and a promise never again to breach their trust and violate their freedom.”
More than 2,100 high school students were bused to the church for the program sponsored by the faith-based nonprofit 29:11 Mentoring Families, according to The Advocate newspaper in Baton Rouge. The district said it partners with the nonprofit, which is named for a Bible verse and whose work includes “redirect[ing] our students to Jesus Christ.”
East Baton Rouge Superintendent Sito Narcisse promoted the “Day of Hope” event beforehand and spoke briefly to the students who attended.
In the face of complaints from parents and students, the district doubled down on its support for what it called “an elevation of a traditional college and career fair.” In a statement, the district said, “We look forward to seeing what our over 2,100 student participants will continue to achieve with the resources and knowledge gained from this event.”