Amanda Simmons/Press-Tribune | The community gathered at Airline High School Oct. 3 for a prayer rally, which was held in support of the school following a letter sent by the ACLU of Louisiana demanding "religious activity" be stopped at the school.

The Bossier Parish School Board has spoken – they will “respect and seek to preserve the constitutional rights of all its students and employees.”

The school board took official action at its regularly scheduled meeting Oct. 1 by issuing a formal statement in response to allegations made by the ACLU pertaining to Airline High School. In addition, board members also chose to pass a resolution regarding its stance on the allegations at hand.

The board says they recognize and embrace “its responsibility to respect and conform to the provisions” of federal and state constitutions and laws “as they pertain to the fundamental rights of students and employees to engage in free speech and the free exercise of religion.”

Amanda Simmons/Press-Tribune
Amanda Simmons/Press-Tribune

State Representative Mike Johnson (R-Bossier City) said the school board was unanimous in their resolve to stand for the rights of students, the rights of religious freedom and the principles of free speech. He called the board’s meeting a big night for not only the parish, but for the state and country.

“They have decided to ignore the demands of the ACLU and to reaffirm that we believe in the First Amendment, equal access and students’ rights in Bossier Parish,” Johnson said. “This is a symbolic gesture that says the school districts here, around the state and around the country will not be bullied by legal organizations that have a radical secular agenda for public schools. They have made a very strong statement here that says we respect the constitution in Bossier Parish and we stand by that.”

The community continues to support Airline High School and Principal Jason Rowland, who has been thrown into the national spotlight since the ACLU’s letter was sent to Bossier Superintendent D.C. Machen on Sept. 24. Thousands gathered outside the school for a prayer rally over the weekend.

The ACLU of Louisiana’s Executive Director Marjorie R. Esman says students have the “absolute right to pray in school.” However, they “do not have the right to impose that on others.” That includes “having religious symbols around the school” because “everyone sees them.”

Esman claims that Rowland “has violated…legal mandates by invoking God, prayer, and Christianity in school publications and on school grounds.”

“I think it’s always a problem when school officials think they can take it upon themselves to violate the law,” Esman said. “I am assuming that the superintendent and principal know what the law is. They are trained and should know these things. For a school official to send the message to their students that they don’t have to obey the law because they don’t like it is the wrong message to send our kids.”

Esman said the school needs “to make sure it remains a secular environment” because that “is what the law requires,” meaning “no school, teacher or administrator is engaged in any kind of activity that “could be construed as promoting prayer or religion.”

Amanda Simmons/Press-Tribune
Amanda Simmons/Press-Tribune

Airline High School was thrust into the spotlight after someone, who Esman would not identify, filed a complaint against the school. They also received a photograph of the “prayer box” that was to be put out by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and a copy of the text written by Rowland from the school’s website.

Esman said the ACLU exists to “defend the constitutional rights of everybody.”

“There is a widespread misunderstanding about the ACLU’s position on freedom of religion,” she said. “We are not anti-religion or anti-Christian at all. But the law is very clear that school officials are prohibited from engaging in religious activities and from promoting religion at all in school. We didn’t make it up. That is the law.”

A lawsuit has not been filed against the school system. Johnson feels as though there will not be a formal response from the ACLU regarding the board’s action.

“Any time you get a demand letter or threat, it’s appropriate to review your policies and procedures, which they did here. It was, by the board’s investigation, affirmed that the ACLU was wrong,” he said. “If litigation ensues, [Freedom Guard has] offered our services to the board free of charge.”