March 2018 Church & State - March 2018

Back On Track: AU Lawsuit Will Restore Focus To La. School District

  Back On Track: AU Lawsuit Will Restore Focus To La. School District

Americans United has supported secular public education since the organization’s founding in 1947. Our charter is clear on this matter. AU was formed in part to “give all possible aid to the citizens of any community or State who are seeking to protect their public schools from sectarian domination.” One of the first actions AU undertook after its founding was to offer legal advice to parents in a public school district in New Mexico that was infused with the teachings of one church.

AU’s founders believed that public schools must welcome young people of all faith perspectives and none – and they can’t do that effectively if school officials are pushing prayer, Bible reading and other religious activities onto students. AU argued that a better approach was to educate students of various beliefs side by side in the hope of fostering tolerance and understanding. Religious instruction, if desired, could be handled by parents at home in conjunction with the house of worship of their choice.

Much has changed since the late ’40s, most of it for the better. Many public schools back then were segregated by race, a repellent practice the Supreme Court struck down in 1954. This has expanded the circle of opportunity for even more young people.

In the early 1960s, the Supreme Court took another important step forward when it struck down man­datory programs of prayer and Bible reading in public schools.

Throughout these changes, one thing has remained the same: Being a teacher, aide or administrator in a public school is hard work. Teachers, many of whom aren’t well-compensated to begin with, tend to put in a lot of free overtime. Surveys show that just about all teachers spend money from their own pockets on classroom supplies.

Most public school teachers are professionals and realize that their position involves imparting secular education. They know that it’s not their duty to proselytize children or try to persuade them to adopt religious beliefs that are different from what kids’ parents are teaching them at home.

But occasionally some public school officials do step over the line and venture into inappropriate forms of promoting religion (usually conservative strains of Christianity). When that happens, Americans Uni­ted believes it’s appropriate – and indeed necessary – to intervene and set things right.

That’s the case in Bossier Parish, La., where last month Americans Uni­ted filed a lawsuit in federal court to stop a variety of unconstitutional practices that promote Christianity. Some – but by no means all – teachers and officials there have strayed into areas where they don’t belong. Backed by the school board, some employees of this district seem to have gotten the idea that it’s their job to urge young people to embrace conservative Christianity.

It is not. In fact, it’s illegal.

This is not a step we took lightly. Indeed, Americans United’s attorneys tried to resolve matters outside of court. Unfortunately, officials at the district were not interested in that option. They insisted they’re doing nothing wrong. We believe a federal court will conclude differently.

Americans United can pursue a case like this while still standing up for public education. In fact, we believe that lawsuits such as the one we filed in Bossier Parish streng­then public schools in the long run. By reminding teachers and administrators of what they’re not supposed to be doing, we can get the district’s focus back where it belongs: educating about subjects like math, English, history and science with no taint of proselytism.

Bossier Parish, which abuts the city of Shreveport, is a growing region that serves many children whose parents are stationed at nearby Barksdale Air Force Base. These families represent a range of religious and philosophical viewpoints. The parish’s public schools are legally obligated to treat all of them equally. The schools fall short of that goal when they elevate Chris­tianity over other beliefs or over non-belief.

Some people (and it’s important to remember that it’s only some of them) who work in the school district have lost sight of that and have wandered into an area where they don’t belong by propagating their favored form of religion. Americans United aims to reel them back in.

It’s the best for all concerned.

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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