School board fights back against lawsuit that claims they evangelize students

Joshua Gill, DCNF

A Louisiana school board voted to fight a lawsuit alleging its schools violate the constitution by promoting prayer and Christian messages.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit against Bossier Parish School Board on Feb. 7, claiming that schools under its jurisdiction break the law by having official prayers at school events like high school graduation, proselytizing in the classroom, and decorating rooms with religious iconography. The school board voted Tuesday in unanimous favor of fighting the lawsuit.

“Based on our previous efforts and attempts to work through this case at the time, we do not believe we can come to an agreement, and I move that we instruct our attorney to proceed with the case according to the current scheduling order,” School Board Member Shane Cheatham said after the board’s executive session, according to Shreveport Times.

The lawsuit alleges that schools under the board’s jurisdiction have encouraged the dissemination of religious materials on campus; decorated their classrooms with Latin crosses; hosted mandatory school events in churches; began or ended school sporting events, graduations, and classes with prayer sometimes led by people other than students; having student chaplains who “are authorized by school officials to proselytize their fellow spirit-team members;” and a host of other actions by school officials that the lawsuit characterized as attempts at proselytizing.

Richard Katskee, legal director for AUSCS, expressed dismay at the school board’s decision to fight the lawsuit.

“The school district is going to spend more and more and more taxpayer dollars trying to defend something that can’t be defended. They’re going to draw it out, and that will cost the people of Bossier more money,” Katskee said.

The lawsuit specifically accused the school board of implementing a policy that encourages prayer at graduation ceremonies. The policy in question, however, only prohibits school officials from preventing students from using religious language.

“School officials shall be prohibited from censoring for religious content the speech of a high school student invited to speak at a commencement ceremony at the school he/she is attending,” the policy reads.

Lawyers for the organization also characterized members of the school’s sports teams as participating in group prayer under duress caused by the pressure from their coaches and onlooking spectators, as opposed to doing so of their own volition. Whether the organization arrived at that conclusion based on student testimony is unclear.

Elements of the case hearken back to the legal battles over Bremerton School District’s firing of Joe Kennedy for praying with his school’s football team on the field.  The school district specifically fired Kennedy for disobeying a directive that forbade him from exercising his faith in any way that would be visible to students. Jeremy Dys, deputy general counsel for First Liberty Institute, told The Daily Caller News Foundation in 2017 that such a directive was dangerously broad.

“Think about where that leads,” Dys said. “That means that the Muslim teacher could not wear her hijab. It means that the Jewish teacher could not wear his yarmulke to the public school setting. It means the Catholic teacher could not wear her crucifix.”

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