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Inside the Christian Legal Campaign to Return Prayer to Public Schools

By Linda K. Wertheimer, The Hechinger Report

BOSSIER PARISH, La. — After more than a decade living out of state, Jennifer Russell and her husband decided it was time to return home to northwest Louisiana. The couple, both in their early thirties at the time, wanted their two children to get to know their grandparents and to benefit from good public schools. In early 2015, lured by inexpensive rental housing on the Air Force base in the area, the family moved to a town in Bossier Parish, across the Red River from Shreveport, where they’d both grown up. Russell’s daughter started kindergarten that fall; her one-year-old son began day care. At first, her daughter adjusted well to the move and made friends. “It was what every parent wants,” Russell told me.

She had no inkling that her family’s religious identity would prove to be a complication. Russell and her husband both grew up Southern Baptist, a conservative, evangelical Protestant denomination that dominates this area of the Bible Belt. They went to the same church, in fact, and had met because their parents became friends. But she’d abandoned the Baptist church as a young adult, after studying world religions in college and starting to doubt what her faith promoted. Following graduate school and during her first years working as a psychologist, her skepticism grew. It seemed to her, she told me, that believers felt they had a “monopoly on truth, that their way was the only way.” Her husband, too, wanted a more progressive form of Christianity. After moving from Wichita Falls, Texas, the family joined a Unitarian church in Shreveport, a progressive house of worship with Christian roots that incorporates the traditions of many religions.

The first signs of trouble began a few years after the family’s move. Russell’s daughter, who did not want her name used to maintain her privacy, came home from school one day with the report that some boys on the school bus had interrogated her and other children about their religion. They asked each student, “Are you a believer in God?” The girl, who liked attending her Unitarian church but did not believe in God, recalled that she told her questioners, “‘No.’ And they said, ‘You’re going to hell.’”

“It was all flatly unconstitutional.”

Richard Katskee, the former legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who represented the plaintiffs in their lawsuit against Bossier Parish schools

Russell was dismayed, but she wanted her daughter to respect others’ views. She told her, “There are kids who believe that…. You want to be respectful, but it doesn’t mean he’s necessarily right, either.” Russell and her husband, who did not want to be interviewed for fear of backlash in the workplace, advised their daughter that if someone started talking to her about her faith, to change the subject, put on headphones, or read.

Russell felt it was harder to ignore teachers. In fourth grade, at least twice a week, the girl’s teacher said a prayer aloud in class. Following their teacher’s lead, some children clasped their hands and bowed their heads. “It was a lot about Jesus and God and help us through the day and stuff like that,” said Russell’s daughter, who sat in the back of the class and tried to tune it out.

Increasingly incensed, Russell felt her daughter’s experiences were symptomatic of the school system’s extensive promotion of evangelical Christianity, also evident in routine prayers at school board meetings, graduations and sporting events. “Teachers, administrators, other staff of the schools — they set the temperature in terms of what was accepted,” she told me. Worried that her daughter would become more of a target for her peers, however, she did not complain directly to Bossier Parish schools. Instead, Russell and her husband began to contemplate moving away.

Other families, however, did complain. In 2018, four parents from three families, listed as Does 1–4, sued Bossier Parish schools for promoting religion and coercing students to participate in prayer. They argued that the prayer was a violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which calls for a separation of church and state. The lawsuit listed more than 100 church/state violations, including teacher-led prayer in classrooms, prayer at sporting events and faculty- and administrator-led prayer at graduations. “It was all flatly unconstitutional,” said Richard Katskee, the former legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who represented the Bossier Parish plaintiffs.

“I want the Supreme Court of the United States to rule very similar to how they ruled in the recent coach deal, that those coaches, teachers, or educators, or anyone in the school do have a right to pray and to talk about God.”

Rex Moncrief, co-host, Bossier Watch, a Youtube program primarily about local news  

The school system acknowledged most of the incidents, but denied that all of the schools’ actions were unlawful. The following year, a federal court in Louisiana sided with the plaintiffs, and ordered the nearly-23,000-student school district to stop promoting religion.

As Bossier Parish school district was ordered to change, however, the legal landscape was changing, too. A different lawsuit was winding its way through the courts, backed by organizations that had long supported school prayer, over the right of a high school football coach to pray on the field after games. Last June, the Supreme Court ruled 6–3 in favor of the coach, Joe Kennedy, who sued the Bremerton, Washington, school district after it disciplined him when he refused to end the practice of praying at the 50-yard line following games. The majority opinion in Kennedy v. Bremerton stated that the coach had a right to freely exercise his religion because he was praying outside his coaching duties. The decision described Kennedy’s prayer as a quiet, personal act. But Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a dissent, noted that for years the coach had led students in locker-room prayers. Often, students from both teams joined him on the field in his prayers. Katskee, who represented the Bremerton school district, told me that students who declined to participate “got harassed and harangued.”

In Bossier Parish schools, parents, teachers, and students told me, the court order stalled, but didn’t entirely stop, Christian prayer. Now, with a Supreme Court friendly to school prayer, educators and state lawmakers around the country are testing the limits of the strict separation of church and state written into the Constitution. In a handful of states, including Kentucky, Montana and Texas, lawmakers have recently proposed or passed measures attempting to promote faith in schools. In Kentucky, for example, the legislature passed a law in March that would allow teachers to share their religious beliefs in school. A Kentucky lawmaker who sponsored the House bill told local television station Lex 18 that he hoped the measure would “embolden these Christian teachers” who may have been afraid to express themselves in public schools.

Meanwhile, attorneys from organizations that often handle complaints about school prayer told me they are receiving word that the Kennedy ruling is leading to more open proselytizing by teachers. In some states, one attorney said, teachers have set up prayer clubs for students and delivered sermons in class. In at least one case, a school district cited the Kennedy ruling as the reason for prayer at school board meetings.

The Christian conservatives advocating for more religion in the schools are doing so in the name of religious freedom. The way they define that freedom could lead to prayer becoming commonplace at public schools all over the country. Over time, advocates of the separation of church and state fear, long-standing protections for young atheists, people who belong to no religion and religious minorities will be eroded — until, perhaps, these protections disappear altogether. As Christianity is held up as the only acceptable way to believe and to live, non-Christian children, who may already feel different, could find themselves all the more sidelined, ostracized or bullied. “This isn’t a legal fight to some of these people,” Jeb Baugh, one of the Bossier parents who sued, told me. “This is a religious war. This is a fight for the heart and soul of the country.”

Continue reading at The Hechinger Report

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Faithfully Magazine is a fresh, bold and exciting news and culture publication that covers issues, conversations and events impacting Christian communities of color.

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