The Webster Parish School District in Louisiana functions more like the Webster Parish Church according to a lawsuit filed today by the ACLU on behalf of a local family. The group cites more than 30 examples of religious proselytizing in the complaint.
The plaintiffs include Christy Cole and her daughter Kaylee, a junior at Lakeside Junior and Senior High. And before the Christian Right whines about how atheists are out to destroy America, they should know Christy Cole is Baptist. Her objection, in part, is that she believes in Matthew 6:5-6, the verse about how only hypocrites pray in public so they can be seen. Kaylee considers herself agnostic.
Cole says the school’s Bible-thumping “co-opts her faith for official government purposes, promotes religious favoritism, and usurps her parental role.”
It’s really incredible to read the list of grievances. Any one of them could have been a problem by itself. But when you see them all together like this, and you consider how long all of this must have been going on, you realize just how courageous the Coles are for speaking out.
1) There were prayers over the loudspeaker each morning when Kaylee attended Central Elementary School. When Cole told the principal that was illegal, he responded by saying students were saying the prayers voluntarily and that the school simply had a “100% volunteer rate.” He added: “They all volunteer for it!” Even if they did, though, that’s no excuse for the school to allow official prayers over the loudspeaker.
2) Teachers cited religious reasons for students not to play “Magic: The Gathering.” In 2011, when Cole’s oldest daughter attended Central, two teachers told students the game was “against the Bible” and “of the Devil.”
3) Christian bodybuilders from a ministry called Team Impact held an assembly at Central where they proselytized and urged kids to go to church. Students could skip class to attend the assembly. If the kids went to that church, they were given bibles autographed by the bodybuilders.
4) In 2013, one of Kaylee’s teachers “slapped a Bible” on her desk while saying it had to be taken literally. Kaylee said that was silly since the Bible referred to unicorns. The teacher grew visibly upset and “humiliated” Kaylee in front of the class. (Incidentally, there are mentions of unicorns in the King James Version of the Bible, though they’ve been changed to other creatures in subsequent translations.)
5) At Lakeside, the evangelism continued. Kaylee witnessed preaching during “pep rallies, assemblies, and athletic games.”
6) The Fellowship of Christian Athletes meets during school hours with staff encouragement. Even though such groups are supposed to meet before or after school and promoted/led only by students, teachers and administrators urged students to attend the in-school meetings.
7) The school used a “lockdown” incident to preach to kids. Students were in the gym one day to learn more about FCA. Because of a security incident, students had to stay in the gym and couldn’t leave. An adult FCA leader used the opportunity to proselytize to students.
8) One teacher showed the film God’s Not Dead in the classroom. Cole’s other daughter Ana Lopez-Cole experienced that as a sophomore, and it was one of many Christian films the Home Ec teacher showed the students throughout the year.
9) During a school-sponsored girls’ football game (powderpuff), there were prayers over the loudspeaker. Cole’s other daughter was a player on the team. This sort of Christian prayer, however, was routine at all athletic events in the District.
10) The science teachers didn’t accept science. Ana said at least three different science teachers said evolution wasn’t real. One even called it a “fairytale.”
11) There were prayers at graduation ceremonies. When Kaylee graduated from eighth grade, the public ceremony included four different Christian prayers during which the crowd was told to stand. When Kaylee’s parents remained seated, other parents “hissed and made disapproving noises to shame them.”
12) Students are told to recite a Bible verse each morning. While it’s normal for students to recite the morning announcements over the loudspeaker, Lakeview selected two students to recite the Pledge and a Bible verse. Always a Bible verse. The students were even handed copies of the Lord’s Prayer. Ana and Kaylee, when selected, always said the Pledge.
13) There were more prayers at the high school graduation ceremonies. In 2016, the ceremony took place at First Baptist Church in Minden. While holding an event of that size inside a church isn’t necessarily a constitutional violation, the districts must make sure there’s no proselytizing taking place. That wasn’t the case here. This ceremony had both Christian prayers and a minister who used the word “God” as he spoke. The following year, at a different church, the minister “told Biblical stories during the event.”
14) School officials promoted See You at the Pole. While the annual Christian event is perfectly legal if students run it, Lakeview broke the rules by having teachers and administrators promote and participate in the event.
15) School officials promoted “Fields of Faith.” This past October, teachers and administrators participated in another ostensibly student-led Christian event that urged kids to accept Jesus.
16) A Christian rapper has performed at several mandatory assemblies. For three of the past four years, rapper Mynista has been invited to perform during mandatory assemblies or pep rallies. He raps about Jesus, shares his personal story of how God helped him overcome addiction, and urged the kids to believe in God too.
17) There was another mandatory Christian assembly last month. The group “You Are Worth It” was invited to speak to students, and YAWI president Bill Baldridge used the opportunity to tell kids that “faith in God” would help them in life. He later bragged about the proselytizing on YAWI’s website, writing, “It was an awesome feeling when the students clapped and cheered when Chief Matecki Nelson from the Ouachita Parish Fire Department explained their value by quoting John 3:16, ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.'”
18) A day later, during a mandatory pre-Veterans Day assembly, there was more proselytizing. Students were taken out of class to listen to a Christian minister talk about the role of God in veterans’ lives.
19) Kaylee has been harassed for not standing while the prayers are spoken over the loudspeakers. Her teacher did nothing when another students yelled at Kaylee, “Devil be rid of me!”
20) Students serving in-school suspensions are sent to a classroom that has Bible verses on the wall. They include psalms and other verses. The same teacher has a list of five daily objectives on the wall. Four of them are: “Pray Daily!,” “Love God!,” “Study His Word,” and “Worship God.” Another wall has a cutout of praying hands with the caption, “WANT A CHANGE? PRAY!” The same teacher regularly plays Christian music in the classroom.
There’s more in the lawsuit, but I’ll stop there for now. The point is this isn’t new, and this isn’t accidental. This is a long-standing problem and just about everyone in the District appears to be complicit. It didn’t matter when there was a new principal or a new school; the problems remained and the Coles, for not joining in, have been treated like pariahs.
The ACLU is asking the judge to put a stop to it all, effectively turning the District’s schools back into places of education instead of wings of a megachurch. The facts are on the ACLU’s side even if the community doesn’t understand the problems.
And when a court rules in the ACLU’s favor, brace yourself for the inevitable cries of “Christian persecution.” Because when your religion has received generous support from the government for so long, having it treated the same as everyone else’s beliefs is somehow considered a slap in the face.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Brian and Danny for the link)