March 2019 Church & State Magazine - March 2019

Victory In Bossier: Americans United Secures Agreement To Protect Students’ Religious Freedom In Louisiana School District

  Liz Hayes

Americans United declared victory in its federal lawsuit against Bossier Parish School Board in northwest Louisiana upon reaching a settlement agreement in late January that protects the religious freedom of the public school district’s 23,000 schoolchildren.

“This historic settlement is a victory for all Bossier families, and will ensure that children feel welcome and included in their own schools, regardless of what religion they do or don’t practice at home,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. “Bossier Parish allowed religious coercion to proliferate throughout their schools – that system will no longer exist and rigorous protections that are enforceable by law have been put in place for all students.”

A joint consent decree between the Bossier Parish School Board and the Bossier parents represented by Americans United was filed with the U.S. District Court for Western Louisiana on Jan. 22; its approval by the court was pending at Church & State’s press time.

In the decree, the school board acknowledged that some of the districts’ actions and policies violated the Constitution because they “(a) endorse and promote religion, (b) have the purpose or effect of advancing religion, and/or (c) coerce religious exercise either directly or indirectly.”

As part of the settlement, the school board a week earlier had unanimously agreed to revise its “religious expression” policy to better protect students’ rights. Noteworthy terms of the settlement agreement and policy include:

  • The creation of a monitoring committee to review and resolve potential violations or disputes involving religious freedom – a novel solution not commonly used before to address church-state separation complaints. Americans United and the district superintendent will each select two members of the four-member committee, which answers to the court, not the school board.
  • The district will “make best efforts” to create, expand or seek out appropriate facilities to minimize the need to hold school events in houses of worship.
  • A commitment to protecting the rights of all Bossier students to pray in school, as long as the prayers are initiated by students, aren’t disruptive and don’t occur during class time.
  • Permission for Bossier teachers to teach about religion in an objective manner but not proselytize students. School staff can’t lead or participate in student-led prayers, nor can the district promote or sponsor religious student clubs or activities.

The consent decree – including the monitoring committee – would be in effect at least until August 2031.

“As a result of our lawsuit, there is now a substantial mechanism in place for the next 12 years to oversee and ensure that Bossier Parish Schools comply with the law and protect the religious-freedom rights of all students and their families,” said Richard B. Katskee, legal director of Americans United. “Nothing like this has ever been done before to safeguard religious freedom in public schools. Americans United is committed to a sustained presence in Bossier to ensure that the Constitution is being upheld.”

The resolution was a long time coming: Americans United first contacted the district in June 2017 after community members complained about school-sponsored student prayers at a Benton High School graduation ceremony a few weeks earlier.

Not only did the district fail to respond to AU’s complaint at the time, but several parents came forward to report extensive promotion of Christianity throughout the district by school board members, administrators, teachers and coaches. The religious freedom violations included prayers at school events, many of which were held in churches; extensive religious coercion throughout the athletic programs; teachers requiring students to recite prayers and learn about creationism in class; school employees promoting religious clubs and off-campus events; and displays of religious items in classrooms and offices.

Benton Football Coach praying with students

(PHOTO: Benton High School football coach Reynolds Moore prays with Bossier students. CREDIT: Facebook)

When the district was not responsive in addressing the parents’ concerns, Americans United filed a federal lawsuit on their behalf in February 2018 – coincidentally, just a few days before Laser took over leadership of AU. In fact, Laser’s first opinion column on behalf of AU was published in the Shreveport Times about the Bossier case.

“We know that America’s public schools – including the ones in Bossier Parish and in every other community around the nation – serve students from a wide array of backgrounds and faiths,” Laser wrote. “To honor our core American values and respect the deeply personal and sacred nature of our religious beliefs, we must ensure that faith is taught in our houses of worship and by parents – not in our public schools. It’s the right thing to do to protect our students and religious freedom, and it’s what our Constitution requires.”

Laser wrote that some Bossier staff members were putting children in the untenable position of choosing between participating in religious activities they don’t subscribe to or singling themselves out for ostracism because they have different beliefs. Laser was particularly taken aback by the report in AU’s lawsuit of one teacher who told students they had to believe in Jesus to be “good people.”

“No children should ever be made to feel like second-class citizens at school because of their or their families’ faith or belief system,” Laser wrote. “All kids deserve to feel like they belong in their classroom.”

The lawsuit was initially met with hostility by some in Bossier Parish, a diverse community that includes Barksdale Air Force Base. A small group of mostly Baptist pastors spoke out in opposition to the lawsuit and, with the help of Republican state Rep. Dodie Horton and the student daughter of Republican state Sen. Ryan Gatti, organized several events and social media campaigns to rally support for the school board. One campaign urged Bossier students to draw a blue line on their hands on a specific school day to show solidarity with the board – an act that would also have drawn attention to any students not supporting school-sponsored religion.

One event featured U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), formerly an attorney for the Religious Right legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, and Loui­siana’s Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry. The pair had circulated a guide purportedly spelling out students’ religious freedom rights a month before Americans United filed the Bossier lawsuit – and about a month after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of a student and her mother in the neighboring Webster Parish School District. ACLU attorney Bruce Hamilton had noted to The Times-Picayune in New Orleans that the Johnson-Landry guide only told part of the story because “Louisiana schools are more likely to hinder religious freedom by imposing religious views on students, not by preventing students’ religious practices.”

The ACLU last May announced it had reached a settlement agreement with the Webster Parish School District on behalf of Christy Cole and her teenage daughter, Kaylee. Under the agreement, the district agreed not to promote prayers during school events, organize religious services for students, unnecessarily hold school events at religious venues and allow school officials to promote their religious beliefs to students. (In October, Americans United awarded Kaylee the organization’s David Norr Youth Activist Award for her courage and defense of secular public education.)

Americans United attorneys were diligently working with the Bossier Parish School Board toward an agreement to settle AU’s lawsuit when efforts were temporarily derailed in early September. A local Christian ministry’s fitness center called Christ Fit Gym paid to have its logo painted on Benton High School’s football field. The logo featured a cross and a Bible verse; acting on their attorneys’ advice, school officials initially ordered the logo to be removed.

But a ministry official threatened to sue if the logo wasn’t restored. The controversy was featured in conservative media outlets, generating outrage both within and outside the Bossier community. In a special meeting on Sept. 11, the school board ordered the logo to be repainted on the field and terminated settlement talks with Americans United. The case appeared to be headed to trial this April.

A month later, the school district also found itself dealing with several other serious legal problems. School board member Mike Mosura in October was federally indicted for allegedly conspiring to sell steroids; he has pleaded not guilty and faces trial in May.

The same month, police arrested a Bossier elementary school teacher accused of sexual assault or misconduct with at least 11 children. Aubrey “Perry” Norcross pleaded not guilty to a dozen related charges late last year; the school district has fired him. In addition to the charges, at least three lawsuits have been filed against Norcross and the school district, according to local media reports. Also, a district substitute teacher and volunteer, Ty’re Venious, was charged in December with sexually assaulting a teenager; the alleged assaults reportedly did not occur on district property.

When Americans United attorneys traveled back to Louisiana in early January to begin depositions in preparation for trial, settlement talks began anew and an agreement was quickly reached.

Bossier Superintendent Scott Smith, who has since retired amidst an unrelated investigation, celebrated the agreement in a Jan. 22 statement: “The settlement allows for the closure of this case without the loss of any student rights, which is of utmost importance to the Board. We are pleased to be able to resolve this matter without impinging upon our students’ rights, which we see as a victory for all of Bossier Parish.”

Laser at AU agreed: “We are thrilled that Bossier Parish Schools are now fulfilling the promise of religious freedom for all of their students.”

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