March 2018 Church & State - March 2018

Getting Schooled On Prayer

  Rob Boston

 A teacher in Bossier Parish, La., may have been a little too forthcoming about some of the things going on in the local public schools.

“Bossier has … problems but there are so many awesome Christians from the top down. We pray at school functions and probably break the law all the time!!” she wrote in an email.

While the teacher was obviously enthusiastic about the state of things in Bossier Parish, a region of about 125,000 residents in northwest Lou­isiana, not everyone shared her joy. For months, Americans United has been receiving reports about the inappropriate promotion of Christianity by teachers, administrators and staff there. (“Parish” is Louisiana’s term for county.)

For months, AU attorneys tried to resolve the matter outside of court. Americans United first contacted the district on behalf of a community member in June 2017, warning that student-led prayers at a May 2017 graduation ceremony at Bos­sier’s Benton High School were unconstitutional because they communicated the school district’s endorsement of a particular religion and coerced students to participate in a religious exercise. The district refused to end the graduation prayer practice.

After more community members came forward to express concerns about an array of additional constitutional violations in Bossier Parish schools, Americans United again contacted the district in a November 2017 letter. District officials never responded.

Seeing no end to the unconstitutional practices, Americans United sued the district in federal court on Feb. 7.

“Parents of all backgrounds should be able to put their trust in public schools to teach children reading and math – and to let families make their own decisions about faith,” said Richard B. Katskee, legal director of Americans United. “Unfortunately, that is not the atmosphere that Bos­sier Parish Schools provide. Even though the district educates a diverse community that includes all the people who come to the area to serve our nation at Barksdale Air Force Base, Bossier Parish school officials make one religion – Christianity – pervade all aspects of school life.”

AU’s lawsuit, Does 1-4 v. Bossier Parish School Board, alleges a variety of constitutional abuses in the parish schools, including:

  • School events are held at churches, often in sanctuaries or other rooms replete with religious iconography. These events have included choir and band performances, kindergarten and middle-school graduations, awards ceremonies and pre­game meals for football players.
  • School events, especially graduation ceremonies, often include pray­ers as part of the official program. Prayers may be delivered by students or by school officials, and the speakers often compel students and audience members to participate by standing, removing their caps and/or bowing their heads. 
  • Extensive promotion of religion within school athletic programs is common, including team devotionals; coaches distributing Bibles and other religious materials to student-athletes and pressuring them to attend church and mission trips; pregame prayers led by pastors in student locker rooms; prayers over stadium loudspeakers during games; and post­game prayers led by coaches on the football field.
  • Teachers engage in proselytism in classrooms, including requiring students to recite Christian prayers or leading them in prayers; using Christian-themed vid­eos to teach health clas­ses; and telling a student that one must believe in Jesus to be a good person.
  • Official endorsement of Christian student clubs and community events occurs, including teachers sponsoring Fellowship of Christian Athletes clubs and encouraging students to participate by handing out promotional materials in class; promoting Bring Your Bible to School Day through banners in schools and Bible verses read over an elementary school public-address system; and allowing local churches access to students during the school day to distribute religious materials and invite children to participate in religious activities.
  • Teachers promote creationism in class.
  • Religious displays are found in classrooms and administrators’ offices.
  • Choir performances take place that force students to sing almost exclusively Christian worship songs.

The lawsuit names Bossier Parish Superintendent Scott Smith as a defendant. Smith is clearly aware that the district is engaging in some problematic activities, yet he doesn’t want to fix them. In fact, Smith once vowed to the Shreveport Times that his school district won’t stop promoting Christianity “until we are instructed by a higher authority to reverse our district’s stance.” (That flip comment led Alison Tanner, an AU legal fellow who is among the attorneys working on the case, to offer this riposte on AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog: [We are] asking for ‘a higher authority’ – a federal judge – to step in and protect Bossier’s parents’ and students’ rights to make their own decisions about faith.”

AU’s lawsuit, which was prepared by Katskee, AU Senior Litigation Counsel Eric Rothschild and Tanner with assistance from Louisiana attorney William P. Quigley, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans, lays out the case against the Bossier Parish schools succinctly.

“Public schools are charged with ensuring that students of every background are able to learn, to live, and to work together while acquiring the skills and values necessary to participate as equal citizens in our inherently pluralistic society,” AU’s legal complaint asserts. “Religious differences abound in our Nation and in the State of Louisiana. Hence, most public schools eschew teaching religious doctrine or endorsing religious practices and instead respect students’ and their families’ beliefs and religious diversity, as our constitution requires.

“But not Bossier Parish public schools,” the complaint goes on to say. “Although Bossier is home to children from a variety of religious and philosophical backgrounds and is constantly infused with diverse newcomers brought in by Barksdale Air Force Base, school officials throughout the Bossier Parish School System coerce students into religious practices and subject them to unwelcome religious messages and indoctrination.”

The scope of the abuses in Bossier Parish is startling, but evidence indicates that these problems are occurring elsewhere in northern Louisiana. Late last year, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit challenging a litany of similar practices in Webster Parish, which abuts Bossier Parish. The ACLU asserts that Webster Parish schools have engaged in the “widespread practice of subjecting students to school-sponsored Chris­tian prayer, proselytizing, and other religious rituals.”

The ACLU’s case has a named plaintiff. In AU’s lawsuit, the four parent plaintiffs are remaining anonymous to prevent further ostracism of their children. On their behalf, AU is seeking a permanent injunction requiring all district employees “to cease their unlawful conduct at all schools within the Bossier Parish School System….”

Katskee said the Americans United lawsuit aims to ensure that the rights of these families – and indeed all families in the parish – are protected.

“Bossier teachers, coaches and administrators have put students who aren’t participating in these religious activities in an untenable position, making them targets for bullying and causing them to question their families’ beliefs,” Katskee said. “Americans United has repeatedly asked the district to create a more welcoming environment that does not promote any particular faith or promote religion over non-religion. But school officials have refused to alter their practices. We now ask the courts to in­ter­vene on behalf of Bossier families who practice a variety of religions and faiths that deserve to be respected and protected.”

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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