Correction: School Religion-Lawsuit story
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — In a story Jan. 24 about the settlement of a lawsuit accusing the Bossier Parish, Louisiana, school board of illegally promoting religion, The Associated Press reported erroneously that the school system admitted no wrongdoing. While the defendants in the suit denied allegations of wrongdoing by the school superintendent and School Board employees, they also admitted in the document that there was a factual basis for the agreement, which states that there were violations of the First Amendment.
A corrected version of the story is below:
Suit alleging religious coercion of students settled
A federal lawsuit alleging that a Louisiana public school system unconstitutionally promoted Christianity to students has been settled
By KEVIN McGILL
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A Louisiana public school system has agreed to restrict promotion of religion to settle a lawsuit alleging that some teachers, coaches and school officials tried to coerce students into Christian activities in classes, graduation ceremonies and athletic contests.
If a judge approves, the agreement filed Wednesday will resolve a lawsuit brought last year by four parents who said officials in north Louisiana’s Bossier (BOH’-zher) Parish school system unconstitutionally promoted religion. The parents’ identities were kept secret because, the suit said, they feared their children, who attend Bossier schools, would be ostracized by classmates if their identities were known.
Parish school officials denied allegations of wrongdoing by the superintendent or employees of the parish School Board, in the court filings in U.S. District Court in Shreveport. But they also admitted there was a basis for the agreement, which includes findings that the policies and practices of the defendants — the board and the superintendent — illegally promoted, advanced and coerced religious exercise.
The lawsuit said some teachers promoted their religion in classes, praying aloud and requiring students to memorize prayers. It said one choir instructor selected mostly Christian songs for performances, and that student athletes were subjected to extensive religious promotion by school staff.
Settlement documents include a detailed eight-page policy, adopted by the Bossier Parish School Board, spelling out what is and isn’t allowed in matters involving religion on campus.
It specifically prohibits school employees from promoting their personal religious beliefs. It allows student-initiated prayers at school events but prohibits teacher participation.
“School officials shall not offer a prayer, recite a prayer alongside or with students, kneel, join hands or otherwise posture in a manner that is likely to be perceived as an endorsement of the prayer,” the policy states. “If, during a prayer a school official chooses to remain still and silent with hands folded, as a sign of respect, such action shall not alone constitute an endorsement.”
Teaching the role of religion in history, culture or the arts is allowed, but it must be done objectively.
Students can participate in religious clubs on campuses — the policy states that schools cannot discriminate against students who wish to conduct a meeting on the basis of religion — and school officials can be present to maintain order. But those officials cannot participate in the meetings.
The agreement allows some school events to be held at a “religious venue,” but only when suitable school facilities are unavailable, and only with approval from a new monitoring committee that will have representatives from both sides of the lawsuit. The lawsuit alleged that at least one high school football team required attendance at pre-game meals hosted by local churches.
“This historic settlement is a victory for all Bossier families, and will ensure that children feel welcome and included in their own schools, regardless of what religion they do or don’t practice at home,” Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United, said in a news release. The group supported the parents’ lawsuit.
The Bossier Parish School Board issued a statement saying the agreement preserves students’ religious freedoms. “The settlement allows for the closure of this case without the loss of any student rights, which is of utmost importance to the Board,” schools superintendent Scott Smith said in the release.