Back in November, the ACLU and its Tennessee chapter sued the Smith County School System in Nashville over its longstanding illegal promotion of Christianity. That case has finally been resolved with some welcome news from a judge.
Here’s the backstory: According to Kelly Butler (an Army veteran) and his two kids, and Sharona and Jason Carr and their three kids, the district had a habit of promoting religion to children. That would be a problem on its own, but it was especially a problem for these families since they’re all atheists (including the children who use that label to describe themselves).
The lawsuit spelled out in great detail what the families encountered over the years.
To begin with, there were school-sponsored prayers:
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.
They literally called that activity a “Prayer and Period of Silence.”
There were additional prayers at assemblies, football games (over the public address system), pep rallies, and graduation ceremonies.
Then, last October, representatives from Gideons International were allowed to visit an elementary school in the district to hand out books. Students were “instructed to raise their hands if they wanted a Bible.”
That’s not all! There were also bibles on the library’s information desk, sitting on tables when you entered a middle school, near students’ art displays, in the main office, and in classrooms. There was no academic reason for any of this. It was just straight-up proselytizing.
Then, there were all the religious signs on classroom doors with Bible verses on them. Some featured teachers’ names directly on them.
No wonder staff members felt 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.
Those were just some of the more egregious violations. Any one of them would have been cause for condemnation. All of them combined? No wonder the lawsuit was 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.”
There’s an inevitable reply from conservatives when a lawsuit like this is filed: If this was so problematic, why did atheists wait this long to complain about it? It’s possible people had a problem with the proselytizing for years but didn’t want to face pushback from the community. It takes courage to file these lawsuits. These families took a huge risk in bringing these complaints to the public.
While the kids themselves weren’t named in the lawsuit, the three of them who were 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.
Amazing all around.
The lawsuit called 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 deemed appropriate.
Now there’s a resolution to the matter. The ACLU says that, last night, a judge issued “a permanent injunction” by way of a consent decree stopping the district from pushing religion on kids. Simply put, the district promised to stop all the proselytizing as a way to just end the legal battle (and save themselves from losing even more money down the line).
The order states that the district denied “many of the factual allegations” but admitted to a whole bunch of them… including the prayers over the PA system, the prayers at assemblies, the prayers at football games, prayers between students and coaches, the Bible distribution by the Gideons people, the Bible displays in the library and a classroom, signs displaying Bible verses in school hallways, and a teacher reading the Bible to kids to open each class (which “has continued… this year”).
It’s like accusing people of robbing a bank and having them tell a judge, “Sure, we robbed a bank, but you got some details wrong.” It doesn’t really make a difference. The point is that the main issues were legitimate, the district admitted to it, and now they’ve promised to stop it.
The district now has 30 days to tell school officials the new game plan and implement it. If the problems continue after that, administrators “may be subject to contempt proceedings or other judicial relief.” All faculty members must also be trained under the new legal obligations as well as on the “impact of religious discrimination on students.”
Each plaintiff in the case will be paid $1. That’s it. That’s also not unusual; it’s a way of recognizing their victory while also acknowledging this wasn’t about the money. The district will, however, be on the hook for all attorneys’ fees and additional costs the ACLU had to spend to fight this.
“I’m relieved the school district recognized that its widespread promotion of religion was unconstitutional,” said plaintiff Kelly Butler. “My children, and all children, deserve an education that is free from the type of religious coercion that our family has suffered.”
“Families should be making the decisions about whether and how to educate their children about religion, not public schools,” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU of Tennessee executive director. “Today’s consent decree ensures that the Smith County schools will be focused on providing a quality education to all students, regardless of their religious beliefs.”
It should never take a team of lawyers to get public school officials to do the right thing, but because the ACLU and these families (and kids!) stepped up, all students will be better off this coming school year because Christianity won’t be baked into their education.
(Image via Shutterstock. Large portions of this article were published earlier)