ACLU sues a Louisiana district over school prayer, enforced religion

Louisiana student reports coerced prayer, mandatory sermons and a teacher describing evolution as a "fairy tale"

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published December 20, 2017 4:58AM (EST)

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

For students in the Webster Parish school district in Louisiana, according to court documents filed by the ACLU on Monday, Christian proselytization is inescapable. From elementary school throughout graduation, the ACLU alleges, the school exerts immense pressure on students and their parents not only to be Christian but to be showily public about their faith. Now a student and her mother are suing, claiming that the school district has repeatedly violated the constitutional ban on governmental establishment of religion.

“The practice of schools sponsoring and promoting religion, particularly the Christian religion, is pervasive and systemic and goes back many years," Bruce Hamilton, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Louisiana, said of this district that serves a number of small towns outside Shreveport, Louisiana. 

Webster Parish, where nearly 64 percent of voters pulled the lever for Donald Trump in 2016, appears to be another front in the culture wars, where Christian conservatives are intent on imposing their worldview on others, regardless of the Constitution and the law.

Christy Cole and her daughter, referred to only as K.C. in the court filing, have leveled dozens of accusations against the school for foisting religion on the district's students over the years. Cole, whose older daughter graduated in 2017, began complaining when her daughters were in elementary school about the daily prayers in which students are clearly expected to participate. Cole says that whenever she complained, school officials would often respond by accusing her of not being a Christian or understanding Christianity.

Cole says she is, in fact, a Christian, though her daughter identifies as agnostic. Cole simply believes that public prayer is a sin. She has scripture to support her interpretation. Matthew 6:6 instructs believers that "when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret." Of course that's not relevant under long-established constitutional law, which holds that public schools are secular institutions.

“This is sometimes perceived as the ACLU being anti-religion, or words to that effect, and that’s really not the case," Hamilton explained. "Students and families have the right to decide for themselves where and when to pray and which faith, if any faith, to follow, without direct or indirect pressure from school officials.”

The school allegedly justified the practice of having students read the Lord's Prayer over the P.A. system daily by claiming that student "volunteers" were doing so. As Hamilton pointed out, however, school officials choose the supposed volunteers daily, which means students "don’t really have the freedom to say no." In addition, all other students are expected to rise and recite the prayers. They are technically allowed to sit silently during the prayer reading, but when Cole's daughter K.C. tried this, she says other students bullied her, with one shouting, "Devil be rid of me!" while her teacher stood by. 

Parents say they have endured similar bullying at school events, being hissed at and abused when they didn't stand up during prayers. According to the allegation, those prayers come so thick during school events that it would be easy to mistake them for a church service.

Cole and her daughter allege the school pushes Christianity in a multitude of other ways, in addition to the relentless and coercive prayer in school and at school events. Signs around the school instruct students to "pray daily" and "love God." Students are regularly exposed to religious materials in the classroom, including the "Veggie Tales" series in elementary school and the movie "God's Not Dead," which is basically a Christian-right email forward in cinematic form.

The schools routinely bring in Christian ministry groups, as well as the Christian rapper Mynista, to proselytize to students, and attendance is often mandatory. Students who are perceived as Christian are privileged over others. Members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes are allegedly given special lunch privileges; absences for the group's activities are automatically forgiven.

Cole's daughters also report religious bullying at the hands of teachers, including a teacher telling the class that evolution was a "fairy tale." Two teachers are alleged to have dressed down students for playing the card game "Magic: The Gathering," on the grounds that it's demonic. K.C. also reported that a teacher suggested to the class that the Bible should be read literally. When she pointed out that the Bible has unicorns in it, the teacher allegedly "became furious" and "told K.C. the Bible did not mention unicorns, and he humiliated K.C. in front of the entire class."

The Bible references unicorns at least six times and has some references to dragons as well.

Salon spoke to district superintendent Johnny Rowland, but he said he had no comment at this time.

Hamilton called K.C. "very heroic" for "standing up to an entire school district," because this is a small school and K.C. has already gotten abuse for questioning the pervasive atmosphere of religiosity.

A perusal of social media accounts from the area gives a hint of what this family is up against. Already people are putting up "I Stand With Lakeside" logos on their social media profiles. (Lakeside is the name of the high school Cole's daughters attended.) Much of the local reaction has involved the argument that the ACLU is somehow oppressing the religious beliefs of Christians, with some folks suggesting that "religious freedom" is somehow under threat.

"I feel so sorry for this child," writes one local woman on her Facebook page. "And I think the ACLU will soon find out they don't want to mess with the parents in Webster Parish."

"We are meant to lead others to Christ, and I loved Lakeside so much for allowing us (as in STUDENTS) that freedom to do God’s work if we felt lead to among the halls without ridicule," writes another.

"My grandchildren have the right to pray in school," another woman posted on Facebook.

"Hmmmm maybe we should all pray for her," a man writes. (Ah, the South, where praying for someone is as likely to be a threat as a promise.)

“Students are allowed to voluntarily pray to themselves or with others or read religious literature during student activity times, if they choose that," Hamilton said in response. "But that’s not what this case involves." It's the "environment of coercion" in the Webster Parish schools that the ACLU objects to, he said.

It's become fashionable in religious-right circles over the past decade or so to declare that the "religious freedom" of Christians is somehow endangered if they are denied the right to force their religion on others. Cases like this expose how ridiculous that claim is. If someone's faith depends on compelling nonbelievers to pray or on persecuting them, it wasn't much of a faith to begin with.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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