ACLU sues to end school-sponsored religious practices in Louisiana district

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A legal fight over school system-endorsed prayers in a northwest Louisiana public school district could expand into a broader fight at the always busy intersection of religion and political opportunism.

The Webster Parish public school system has been sued over its alleged sponsorship of Christian religious events.

On December 18, the ACLU of Louisiana filed suit against the Webster Parish School Board, the system’s superintendent, and a high school principal on behalf of a parent whose agnostic daughter objected to years of system-endorsed Christian prayers, events, and ceremonies.

Two weeks later, on January 2, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry and Fourth District U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson announced the release of a booklet titled “Louisiana Student Rights Review: Answers to Common Questions about Religious Freedom in Schools.” For Landry, this appears to be another example of his keen opportunistic eye. For Johnson, a first-time member of Congress whose district includes Webster Parish, it is part of an ongoing legal crusade to use religious liberty arguments to carve out exceptions to constitutional protections, in this case the First Amendment’s prohibition against the establishment of official religion.

Landry has little in his political background that points to a particular interest in religious freedom of any sort. Johnson, on the other hand, is an attorney who has worked extensively on fundamentalist Christian constitutional challenges on a range of issues, seeking to carve out faith-based constitutional protections for discrimination.

Johnson has served as legal counsel for the Family Research Council, the National Day of Prayer Task Force, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Louisiana Right to Life Federation. He also served as counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which has been classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Johnson’s wife Kelly is a former Webster Parish school teacher.

Webster is a predominantly rural parish with a population of 41,207. As is the case in many rural communities, traditions are strong, and change comes grudgingly, if at all.

The ACLU filed suit in the Western District Federal Court in Shreveport on behalf of Christy Cole, the parent of a Webster Parish student, and her daughter, K.C., who attends Lakeside Junior and Senior High in Sibley.

The suit details 12 years of what Cole calls the Webster Parish School District’s “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.”

The complaint continues, “So engrained is official promotion of religion at Webster Parish schools that virtually all school events — such as sports games, pep rallies, assemblies, and graduation ceremonies — include school-sponsored Christian prayer, religious messages and/or proselytizing. Graduation ceremonies are frequently held in houses of worship, and at times they resemble religious rituals that include Bible verses and Christian prayers.”

Cole, the 24-page suit asserts, “has become increasingly alarmed by the pervasive religious indoctrination to which students in the District are subject.”

The suit alleges that administrators, faculty, and other students have attempted to shame K.C. for her refusal to participate in Christian prayer activities. These activities included classroom prayers led by teachers, school-sponsored religious messages during assemblies and sports games, graduation ceremonies regularly held in churches, and a stream of Christian athletes and performers brought regularly into the school.

“Being subjected to unwelcome religious indoctrination should not be the price of getting a public education in Webster Parish,” ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Heather L. Weaver said in a statement released after the suit was filed. “Webster Parish is a textbook example of why government-sponsored religious indoctrination is so harmful and why our country’s founders took pains to prevent it. The aggressive and pervasive religious proselytizing by Webster Parish School District has made our client feel unwelcome at her own school and shunned by her peers and teachers.”

Religious liberty may well be in the eye of the beholder, considering that this is the same banner under which Johnson did so much of his legal work prior to being elected to Congress.

The booklet that Johnson and Landry released seeks to eliminate what Landry calls “widespread confusion across our nation, and here in Louisiana, regarding the practical application of those rights in public schools.”

“It is important to remember that our Constitution and laws protect the rights of students to live out their faith on campus,” said Johnson in a statement announcing that copies of the booklet will be mailed to all Louisiana school superintendents. “Religious liberty is the first freedom listed in the Bill of Rights, and the next generation of Americans needs to be encouraged to preserve it.”

It’s unclear whether Landry’s office will get involved in the ACLU’s case in Webster Parish. Johnson’s extensive work on religious liberty issues might help draw amicus brief filings in support of the school district.

Johnson and Landry did not respond to calls to their respective offices requesting comment on the booklet and any possible connection it may have to the ACLU’s suit.

The Webster Parish case may not be an ideal case for intervention for either Landry or the more aggressive religious liberty advocacy groups with ties to Johnson. The introduction to Landry and Johnson’s booklet reads, in part:

Although the government is prohibited from sponsoring religious activities in schools, the Constitution fully protects the free speech and religious expression of students. Courts have determined there is an important distinction between government speech attributed to a school district or its employees and the private speech of students. Unlike the government, students may share and promote their religious beliefs and freely live out their faith.

According to Cole’s allegations, that distinction between government speech and private speech appears to have been lost on Webster Parish school administrators. It remains to be seen whether other groups will view this as a fight worth joining.