The ACLU and its Tennessee chapter are suing the Smith County School System in Nashville, Tennessee over its longstanding illegal promotion of Christianity.
According to Kelly Butler (an Army veteran) and his two kids, and Sharona and Jason Carr and their three kids, the district has a habit of pushing religion on kids. That’s a problem for all of them since they’re all atheists (including the children who use that label to describe themselves).
The lawsuit spells out in great detail what the families have encountered over the years.
Like all the school-sponsored prayer.
On Monday mornings throughout the school year, Smith County Middle School holds mandatory assemblies in the gymnasium known as “family meetings.” At these assemblies, Principal [Kelly] Bell solicits prayer requests from students and staff. After demanding that students and staff provide subjects for prayer requests, Bell sometimes adds her own prayer request. She then instructs students over a microphone to “bow your heads and think of these people” or to “keep these people in your prayers.” Staff and nearly all students bow their heads to pray silently during this period.
In case there’s any doubt as to whether district officials are aware of this, the policy describing what Bell is doing is called the ““Prayer and Period of Silence.”
There are additional prayers at assemblies, football games (over the public-address system), pep rallies, and graduation ceremonies.
Then, this past October, Gideons International was allowed to visit an elementary school in the district to hand out bibles. Students were “instructed to raise their hands if they wanted a Bible.” There are also bibles on the library’s information desk, sitting on tables when you enter a middle school, near students’ art displays, in the main office, in classrooms, etc. There’s no academic reason for any of this. It’s just proselytizing.
There are also religious signs on classroom doors with Bible verses on them. Some feature teachers’ names directly on them.
No wonder staff members feel free to preach to kids during school hours:
[Library teacher] Ms. [Martha] Holladay frequently promotes her religious beliefs to students. For example, she has told students that they would not get in trouble “if you had Jesus in your life.” Near Easter, she screened a film about the crucifixion of Jesus during regular class hours for H.B. and her classmates. On information and belief, that film was called, “The Passion of the Christ.”
Another teacher urged a student to find Jesus or go to church because the student hadn’t been turning in homework assignments.
All of this goes on for a while. I’m only mentioning some of the more egregious violations. Any one of them would be cause for condemnation. All of them combined? No wonder this lawsuit is so necessary.
“When public schools promote religion, it sends an impermissible message that students who don’t share the favored religious beliefs don’t belong,” said Heather L. Weaver, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “Our clients are part of the school community, and school officials have no right to alienate them in this way.”
“Public schools are supposed to be places where all students are welcomed and given access to quality education, regardless of their religious beliefs,” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN executive director. “The religious freedom of Tennessee families can only be protected if the government is not promoting or sponsoring religious activities. Decisions about whether and how to practice religion are best left to families and faith communities, not public schools.”
If you’re wondering why it took so long for someone to come forth, it’s entirely possible people had a problem with the proselytizing for years but didn’t want to face pushback from the community. It takes courageous people to file these lawsuits. These families are taking a huge risk in bringing these complaints to the public.
While the kids themselves aren’t named in the lawsuit, the three of them who are in high school — Harleigh Butler, Pyper Butler, and Leyna Carr — did an interview with the ACLU about why they were willing to challenge district officials.
… Are you worried about this lawsuit revealing to your peers and those in your community that you’re atheists?
Harleigh: I feel like if we do, we’ll be seen as mistrusting or misleading, or a bad influence. I haven’t really talked about it except with my close friends, to be honest, and most of them are atheists.
Leyna: I don’t really hide it because it’s not really something that I should hide. Everybody can express their religion. Why shouldn’t I be able to express the fact that I’m an atheist?
Pyper: I’m not really that worried about it because most people already know that I’m not religious.
What are you hoping will happen as a result of this lawsuit?
Harleigh: I want to feel like I can go to school and not feel like I’m not a part of what is happening. Or go to a football game and not feel uncomfortable for the first 20 minutes. I want to do normal teenage things at school without feeling like I don’t fit in.
Pyper: Just wanting to fit in. When you’re not bowing your head, people look at you weird.
Leyna: I respect other people’s religion, and I would like it if everyone else would respect my beliefs.
I can’t even express how much admiration I have for those girls for putting themselves out there like this. Give them all the scholarships already.
The lawsuit calls for the district’s Establishment Clause violations to be halted immediately, for administrators to provide a written injunction to everyone who works in the district (so they know what’s going on and what’s prohibited), and whatever financial penalty and attorneys’ fees a judge deems appropriate.
If you’re the district’s lawyer, how can you even respond to something like this other than to throw your hands up in the air and surrender on the spot? It’s not like there’s a reasonable explanation for any of this. If school officials were promoting Islam instead of Christianity, it would have been stopped a long time ago. Instead, it’s up to a handful of courageous atheists to stand up for the Constitution since we apparently can’t count on the Christians in the district to follow the rules.
(Image via Shutterstock)