The Bossier Parish public school district is under fire for alleged unconstitutional actions involving the promotion of Christianity.
The school board will meet in executive session Thursday, Feb. 15, to discuss a 33-page lawsuit, filed last week in U.S. District Court in Shreveport, that 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.
Bossier Schools Superintendent Scott Smith and the Bossier Parish School Board have been named defendants in the suit. Americans United for Separation of Church and State has filed the lawsuit on behalf of four Bossier Parish families, whose children currently attend or have attended elementary, middle and high schools within the district since 2015.
The parents are identified only as “Does 1-4” to remain anonymous and protect their children.
“Revealing the names of Plaintiffs would necessarily reveal the identities of their minor children, further exposing them to the ostracization that they have already experienced because of the official religious endorsements giving rise to this lawsuit,” the lawsuits asserts.
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.
The plaintiffs are seeking a judge’s declaration that the school district is unconstitutionally promoting Christianity and an injunction ordering it to stop.
“Bossier teachers, coaches and administrators have put students who aren’t participating in these religious activities in an untenable position, making them targets for bullying and causing them to question their families’ beliefs,” Richard B. Katskee, legal director for Americans United, said in a news release. “But school officials have refused to alter their practices. We now ask the courts to intervene on behalf of Bossier families who practice a variety of religions and faiths that deserve to be respected and protected.”
The lawsuit highlights a multitude of ways that Bossier Parish Schools violate students’ religious freedom, including:
-School events held at churches, often in sanctuaries or other rooms replete with religious iconography. These events have included choir and band performances, kindergarten and middle-school graduations, awards ceremonies and pregame meals for football players.
-School events, especially graduation ceremonies, often include prayers as part of the official program. Prayers may be delivered by students or by school officials, and the speakers often compel students and audience members to participate by standing, removing their caps and/or bowing their heads.
-Extensive promotion of religion within school athletic programs, including team devotionals; coaches distributing Bibles and other religious materials to student-athletes and pressuring them to attend church and mission trips; pregame prayers led by pastors in student locker rooms; prayers over stadium loudspeakers during games; and postgame prayers led by coaches on the football field.
-Teachers proselytizing in classrooms, including requiring students to recite Christian prayers or leading them in prayers; using Christian-themed videos to teach health classes; and telling a student that one must believe in Jesus to be a good person.
-Official endorsement of Christian student clubs and community events, including teachers sponsoring Fellowship of Christian Athletes clubs and encouraging students to participate by handing out promotional materials in class; promoting Bring Your Bible to School Day through banners in schools and bible verses read over an elementary school public-address system; and allowing local churches access to students during the school day to distribute religious materials and invite children to participate in religious activities.
-Teachers promoting creationism in class.
-Religious displays in classrooms and administrators’ offices.
-Choir performances that force students to sing almost exclusively Christian worship songs.
“Most public schools eschew teaching religious doctrine or endorsing religious practices and instead respect students’ and their families’ beliefs and religious diversity, as our constitution requires,” the lawsuit reads. “But not Bossier Parish public schools.”
The lawsuit was prepared by Katskee, AU Senior Litigation Counsel Eric Rothschild and AU Legal Fellow Alison Tanner with assistance from Louisiana attorney William P. Quigley, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.