On Point: Religion in public schools is still an issue

 Scott Forsyth, The Daily Record Newswire

Let us take a little trip to Sabine Parish. It is located in “the Bible Belt” of Louisiana. How do we know that? Because the superintendent of the Sabine Parish School District said so to the parents of a Buddhist sixth-grader. Why would the superintendent make such a statement? Ah, that is the story of Lane v. Sabine Parish Sch. Bd., No. 5:14-CV-00100 (W.D. La. 2014).

Last August, C.C., the student, enrolled in the local high school. For science he was assigned to Rita Roark.

Roark is a devout Christian who openly expresses her views in class. Evolution, she proclaimed, is a “stupid” theory that “stupid people made up because they don’t want to believe in God.” In her tests she includes religious questions, like “ISN’T IT AMAZING WHAT THE _____ HAS MADE!!!!!” The correct answer is LORD. When C.C. answered Buddha, the teacher marked it off and then ridiculed his error in class. Earlier, she called Buddhism “stupid.”

The parents of C.C. complained to the superintendent, which led to the line about the Bible Belt. The superintendent then suggested C.C. change his faith or transfer to another school. She did not discipline Roark.

The proselytizing by Roark was not the only religious practice at the high school. Paintings of Jesus Christ, Bible verses, and devotional affirmations adorn the walls of classrooms and hallways. A lighted marquee just outside the building scrolls Bible verses every day. Staff routinely leads students in Christian prayer at assemblies, lunch and athletic contests. Staff also distributes religious material to students, which, as expected, denounces evolution.

The parents of C.C. turned to the ACLU for assistance. At the end of January it commenced a lawsuit challenging the district’s promotion of Christianity. The district answered with a press release bemoaning the start of litigation and claiming it had another story to tell. Unfortunately for the district, even if only a fraction of C.C.’s story is true, it should lose.

“(A)t a minimum the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise,” Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 587 (1992). Public elementary and secondary schools present environments in which minors are particularly vulnerable to coercion, be it emanating from persons in authority, i.e, teachers and administrators, or through peer pressure.

Thus, official prayers at graduation ceremonies and student-led invocations before football games are both unconstitutionally coercive, Id.; Sante Fe Inde. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000). That students may refrain from participating in the religious events or look away is irrelevant.

Any one of the religious practices found at the high school would be considered coercive. In combination, they put tremendous pressure on C.C. to participate, like everybody else, in the exercise of Christianity. The Establishment Clause bars government from applying pressure of any type.

The practices are also unconstitutional because they represent an endorsement of religion, Christianity in particular. “(I)t is not enough that the government restrain from compelling religious practices: it must not engage in them either,” Lee v. Weisman, supra at 604 (Blackmun, J., concurring).

Government engages in or endorses religion when an “objective observer,” knowing the history of the challenged government action and the context in which the action occurs, perceives the action to be “stamped with (government’s) seal of approval,” Sante Fe Inde. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, supra.

Again, any one of the practices would be viewed by an objective observer as an effort to promote Christianity at the high school. The multiplicity of the practices and the many comments by teachers and administrators in support of them provides further context supporting the view.

The district had created an environment making anybody who did not believe in and practice Christianity an outsider and second-class citizen. The Establishment Clause was adopted to prevent such an outcome — the favoring of one faith to the exclusion of all other faiths.

The ACLU moved for a preliminary injunction to stop the various activities at the high school. The court has not ruled on the motion.

Unfortunately, C.C. could not wait. His parents are driving him to and from another school, 25 miles away. If the court grants the motion, maybe he will return.

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Scott Forsyth is a partner in Forsyth & Forsyth and serves as counsel to the local chapter of the ACLU. He may be contacted at (585) 262-3400 or scott@forsythlawfirm.com.

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