Louisiana State Senator and lawyer speaks out on lawsuit filed against Bossier Schools
State Senator and Bossier City-based attorney Ryan Gatti says a lawsuit against the Bossier Parish public school system is evidence of a strong faith-based community.
A 33-page lawsuit, filed last week by Americans United for Separation of Church and State in U.S. District Court in Shreveport, alleges 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.
“I can’t imagine anyone would move into our area, oblivious to the fact that we have strong Christian values,” Gatti said during a phone interview. “We have a 300-foot cross that you can see from the interstate. As terrible as the lawsuit is, it’s amazing evidence that we are a Christian parish.”
Americans United has threatened legal action against the district before. The organization contacted Bossier Parish in June 2017 regarding student-led prayer at Benton High School’s graduation that May. Americans United contacted Bossier again in November 2017 after more community members came forward with concerns.
The lawsuit filed last week alleges that Bossier’s school board and superintendent failed to respond to the organization’s letters. Bossier Schools has yet to respond to the lawsuit.
This isn’t the first time Bossier Parish schools has been publicly outed for its alleged religious activities on school grounds. In 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Louisiana sent an open letter to then Superintendent D.C. Machen concerning “a pattern of religious proselytization” at Airline High School.
The letter from Executive Director Marjorie R. Esman claimed that Airline had “established “prayer boxes” with Christian symbols throughout the school” and had “religious messages in newsletters posted on the school’s website.” Esman also referred to a message posted on the school’s website from Principal Jason Rowland that included the phrase, “…May God Bless You All…”
Hundreds from the community gathered on the Airline campus for a prayer rally, led by local church leaders and members, in support of the school, district and administrators.
The school board issued a formal response in Oct. 2015 to those allegations, saying they would “respect and seek to preserve the constitutional rights of all its students and employees.”
Gatti said the best thing for Bossier to do now is stand strong, again, and support the school district and administrators.
“We should all react with love and kindness. We should show our support for [Superintendent] Scott Smith and all of the teachers in Bossier Parish,” Gatti said. “Our power to pray does not come from the government. Our power to pray comes from our relationship with Jesus Christ. It’s proven throughout history that if you put Christians in jail, they will continue to pray.”
The lawsuit against Bossier public schools is the second lawsuit in Gatti’s district in recent months relating to the promotion of Christianity in school. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in Dec. 2017 on behalf of Christy Cole, a parent of a Webster Parish student, and her daughter, who attends Lakeside Junior and Senior High in Sibley, alleging that “the Webster Parish School District has a longstanding custom, policy, and practice of promoting and inculcating Christian religious beliefs by sponsoring religious activities and conveying religious messages to students, including by broadcasting prayers daily over school speakers.”
Named as defendants in that suit are the district school board, Superintendent Johnny Rowland and Lakeside Principal Denny Finley.
According to the Minden Press-Herald, Webster Parish school officials have submitted their response to the lawsuit. Filed on Jan. 10, the formal response takes an unyielding stance, denying almost every piece of information found in the 24-page lawsuit.
Though the school system denies any actions were unconstitutional, two of the numerous practices cited by Cole have been discontinued. The broadcasting of prayers through the PA system ceased at Lakeside Junior/Senior High and Central Elementary School at different times. In addition, signs with religious messages on a classroom wall at Lakeside have been removed.
Photos by: Amanda Simmons, Press-Tribune
A prayer rally was held in 2015 in response to the ACLU’s open letter to then Superintendent D.C. Machen and the Bossier Parish School Board regarding alleged religious activity at Airline High School.