At long last, there’s resolution in one of the most egregious church/state separation cases I’ve ever seen.
The lawsuit against Louisiana’s Bossier Parish School Board and Superintendent Scott Smith, filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, claimed that the District violated the Constitution in a number of different ways.
For example, Smith mandated that all football players stand during the National Anthem, preventing any form of a peaceful protest. There were Christian prayers recited over the loudspeakers before football games, something the Supreme Court has already ruled is illegal. School events were held at churches, choir performances included (almost exclusively) Christian worship music, Creationism was promoted in the classroom, etc.
Any one of those things would be a problem. This District was doing all of them. That’s why a coalition of six different atheist groups warned Smith about the concerns in 2017 and why AU ultimately filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of four families with students in the District.
Along the way, the plaintiffs requested anonymity in the case because Christians were threatening their lives. (The District agreed to that request.)
AU has now declared victory in the case, citing a settlement that should put an end to proselytizing and First Amendment abrogations.
My understanding of this settlement is that Bossier Parish knew they would lose if they kept fighting the case. Rather than let a judge declare the obvious and get punished with a massive penalty in legal fees, the school board sat down with AU to figure out a compromise that didn’t involve a financial hit. That compromise is pretty much everything AU wanted.
On Jan. 14, 2019, the Bossier Parish School Board approved a revised religious expression policy and agreed to a settlement with AU, which was filed with the federal district court today. Provisions of the settlement include:
- The historic creation of a monitoring committee to review and resolve potential violations or disputes involving religious freedom.
- An agreement from the board 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.
“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.”
“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. We are thrilled that Bossier Parish Schools are now fulfilling the promise of religious freedom for all of their students.”
It really is a victory as long as the school board fulfills its end of the bargain. (You can bet there will be hell to pay if they don’t.)
By the way, the school board is also spinning this as a victory. But just look at what they’ve “won” and you’ll see it’s all stuff that was perfectly legal before the lawsuit ever occurred.
The School Board said the agreement also includes the following:
- Students maintain the right to pray at school and at school events.
- Students will be allowed to speak about religion at school events.
- Does not penalize school employees who bow their heads when prayers are offered.
- Allows teachers to teach about religion in an objective manner.
- Allows student clubs of all kinds, including Fellowship of Christian Athletes, to continue to organize, meet and be active on campus.
- Allows students to express their own ideas verbally and to distribute literature.
- Allows employees to wear items of jewelry that include symbols associated with religion
No one was ever threatening to take any of those things away. They might as well say, “Students still have a right to be Christian, SO WE WIN!” Of course they do. No one was arguing otherwise.
Hats off to AU for pursuing this until the school board finally did what they should’ve done all along. It shouldn’t have taken a lawsuit for them to do the right thing, but the end result is actual religious freedom for everyone instead of special perks for Christians.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Brian for the link)