A lawsuit intended to silence religion in Bossier Parish schools is doing just the opposite.
Students are using this as an opportunity to speak loud and clear about their religious freedom in school.
“The lawsuit pushed us to this point, but standing up for our faith is something we are called to do, with or without a lawsuit,” Katherine Gatti, a senior at Airline High School, said.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court earlier this month, alleging widespread use of prayer on school property and during school events, in classrooms at all levels, at sporting events, at graduation ceremonies, during awards assemblies and at student government meetings. It also alleges that school officials openly proselytize students in Christianity.
The suit was filed on behalf of four Bossier Parish families, whose children currently attend or have attended elementary, middle and high schools within the district since 2015.
Bossier Schools has since issued a formal statement, saying they will update policies and require training for all school employees.
“The Bossier Parish School Board and its administration are committed to maintaining exceptional schools, respecting the rights and beliefs of every student and family in our community, and carefully following all applicable federal and state laws,” the official statement reads. “The Board is in the process of updating and supplementing its policies to ensure full legal compliance across the school district and is scheduling mandatory in-service training for all administrators, teachers and coaches on the policies and underlying laws.
“We trust these affirmative steps will resolve the current federal court matter in short order so that precious taxpayer funds can be spent on continuing to improve the quality of educational services provided to students rather than on potentially expensive litigation.
“As we implement revised policies and ensure full legal compliance on every campus in the district, Bossier Schools will always carefully respect and preserve the fundamental rights of all students, including their cherished First Amendment right to religious freedom.”
Because this matter is in litigation, there will be no further comment on behalf of Bossier Schools, according to Public Relations Liaison Sonja Bailes. But that doesn’t mean the students will remain silent.
“It’s an incredible opportunity for students from all over, not just our community here in Bossier Parish, but for students in northwest Louisiana to come together and take a stand for what they believe in,” Cole Billiot, a senior at Parkway High School, said.
Students are leading prayer rallies to bring students of all denominations together as a way to educate them on their rights in school and to equip them with the tools to exercise those rights.
The Protect Prayer movement didn’t happen overnight, though. It has been a huge focus in Gatti’s prayer life.
“I was scared to step out and do anything about it because I didn’t want to be alone,” she said. “This is something that God has been calling me to do for a very long time. It just took this recent lawsuit and the one in Webster [Parish] to make me realize that.”
She reached out to those around her and formed a leadership team. Now, more than 40 students from Bossier and Webster, both high school and middle school age, are standing up for what they believe in.
Katie Walker, a senior at Haughton High School, said it was very important for her to get involved in the movement.
“It’s our Christian brothers and sisters….they are family,” she said. “Our family is being attacked and we want them to know we have their backs and will stand with them.”
The first prayer rally, held Feb. 22, brought hundreds of students together from Bossier and Webster Parish. Billiot said it was “an incredible blessing” to have so many believers under one roof.
“When you are under fire for whatever you believe in, no matter what it is, we have the right to stand and oppose that in a fair and just way,” he said. “I think that is something all of our peers can get out of this, whether they are a Christian or not. We have the ability to stand for what we believe in and we have the freedom to assemble behind that.”
Gatti agreed, adding that she hopes more students will find their voice and speak out.
“Usually when these things come up, our politicians and parents voices are louder than ours. We want our voices to be heard because it really affects us in our every day lives,” she said. “Our teachers are scared and our schools are scared, but it’s time for students to live in the freedom that we have under the law and, more importantly, the freedom we have under Christ. Even if the lawsuit goes away, what we’re doing here still has a purpose.”
Above all else, they don’t want any student of any denomination to feel like they are alone.
“When they take their faith seriously, it doesn’t mean they have to be an outcast,” Gatti said. “We hope they know they are not alone. We are a community of believers that should come together and encourage others to live out their faith, whatever that may be.”
The next Protect Prayer student rally will be held Thursday, March 22, at The Stable, located at 2195 Swan Lake Road in Bossier City. Gatti hopes more students will join the movement and learn about their religious freedom at school.
“This lawsuit may limit our teachers and it may limit our schools and it may change the way that things happen in this area, but we want students to be encouraged and grow stronger in their relationship with Christ. Living out your faith boldly and confidently is what we’re called to do.
Gatti continued, “We’re paving the way for students years from now to stand for prayer. We don’t want them to back down. We want people to stand up. Our purpose is not to win a lawsuit, but to unite as Christians and stand strong in our faith.”
For more information on the Protect Prayer movement, visit www.protectprayer.com or visit the Protect Prayer Facebook page.
By Amanda Simmons