April 2018 Church & State Magazine - April 2018

Louisiana School District Sued By AU Says It Will Change Policies

  Liz Hayes

Two weeks after Americans United filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of families whose children have been unconstitutionally coerced to participate in religious activities in Bossier Parish public schools, the Louisiana school district announced it would make changes to its policies – but it hasn’t yet provided details about what the changes will be.

“The Board is in the process of updating and supplementing its policies to ensure full legal compliance across the school district and is scheduling mandatory in-service training for all administrators, teachers and coaches on the policies and underlying laws,” the district said in a Feb. 20 statement. “We trust these affirmative steps will resolve the current federal court matter in short order so that precious taxpayer funds can be spent on continuing to improve the quality of educational services provided to students rather than on potentially expensive litigation.

“As we implement revised policies and ensure full legal compliance on every campus in the district, Bossier Schools will always carefully respect and preserve the fundamental rights of all students, including their cherished First Amendment right to religious freedom,” the statement added.

Eric Rothschild, AU’s senior litigation counsel, told the Shreveport Times that AU is hopeful the district will address all of the voluminous violations that have been reported, which include widespread proselytization, opening school events such as graduations and football games with prayers, holding school events in churches, distributing religious material in schools and teaching creationism.

“We’ll have to see what the details are of the changes they propose,” Rothschild said. “I hope we are seeing the first signs of a resolution. We’re happy to see it. We had reached out before we filed the lawsuit in a letter letting the district know about all the violations we had become aware of. … We asked them to stop those constitutional violations and that didn’t happen.”

AU filed the lawsuit, Does 1-7 v. Bossier Parish School Board, on Feb. 7 (the lawsuit originally was filed on behalf of four parents; three more have since joined the suit). Three months earlier, AU had sent a letter asking Bossier officials to correct the religious freedom violations; the district never responded. AU’s first contact with Bossier was in a June 2017 letter asking the district to end prayers at a high school graduation ceremony; the district refused.

On March 1, AU asked the court to allow the parents in the lawsuit to remain anonymous because they fear further ostracism of their children. AU’s request noted threatening and harassing comments already made on social media in res­ponse to the lawsuit, as well as harassment directed at Christy Cole and her daughter, Kaylee, who worked with the American Civil Liberties Union to file a similar lawsuit against a neighboring school district. The Coles did not file their lawsuit anonymously.

AU’s lawsuit has drawn the attention of politicians in the state. In response to the district’s statement about changing its policies, Louisi­ana’s Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry said, “I commend (Boss­ier) Superintendent Scott Smith and the Bossier Parish School Board for working diligently to make sure students and teachers are aware of their constitutional rights.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), who previously worked for the Religious Right legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, has referenced AU’s lawsuit on his Facebook page. Both Landry and Johnson are expected to attend an April rally organized by Bossier-area pastors advocating for prayer in public school.

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