The Public School Where Prayer Is Everywhere

A Buddhist family has filed a lawsuit against Louisiana's Sabine Parish School Board for violating the First Amendment.
David Goldman/AP Images

A federal lawsuit filed last week in Louisiana contains some of the most startling allegations you will ever see against public school officials accused of unlawfully turning their school into a bastion of Christian belief. In western Louisiana's Sabine Parish, one family alleges, teachers preach Creationism and mock the theory of evolution, routinely lead their students in Christian prayer, give extra credit for Christian responses to assignments, and actively question or deride the religious beliefs of non-Christian students and parents.

I wrote about the allegations in this case over the weekend for The Daily Beast but return to this story now because it has not yet flowered into the national story it deserves to be. You simply have to read the complaint, and the other court papers, and see the photos, to believe it. This is not a case about a few student-led prayers at graduation or a Christmas display. It is not a case about one odd educator. This is a case that digs down to the foundation of the wall that is supposed to separate church and state.

With all that in mind, and to offer context and perspective on this so far under-reported story, I asked Charles Haynes to share his insight about the case. Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center, is the nation's preeminent expert on Establishment Clause cases in public school settings. He has spent decades reviewing first amendment law in the context of these school prayer cases. Here is a slightly edited version of an email interview I conducted with him over the past few days.

What was your first reaction when you read the complaint and the other court papers filed in this case? Have you ever before seen allegations of this sort in an Establishment Clause case? What past cases does this case remind you of?

I was stunned.  I have worked with hundreds of public schools on “religion in schools” issues over the past 25 years.  I can honestly say that the allegations in the case are among the most serious I have ever seen. 

In most of the school districts where administrators and teachers continue to promote religion, the violations of the Establishment Clause are limited—and often unwitting.  For example, some public schools have continued the longstanding tradition of holiday programs in December that come close to turning the school auditorium into the local church. Other public schools have continued to allow outside groups to distribute Bibles to students in the classroom. Occasionally a school official with little or no understanding of the law will do something unconstitutional and get called out, like the principal in Baltimore who held a prayer service in her school in 2011 to invoke divine aid in raising student test scores. 

But these vestiges of an earlier era are rarely part of a pattern of unconstitutional behavior by school officials as is alleged in Sabine Parish.  Although limited violations of the First Amendment cause conflicts and trigger lawsuits, such violations usually occur in schools that otherwise generally follow the law. These fights—and I have negotiated solutions to quite a few—are often a result of confusion about the law, a difference of opinion about how current law should be applied, or lack of clear school policies on religion.  

But there are a small number of public schools—especially in the rural South—that continue to defy more than 50 years of Supreme Court decisions prohibiting school officials from promoting or inculcating religion. The pattern of illegal behavior alleged in Sabine Parish resembles allegations in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU against the Sumner County school district in Tennessee in 2011. The pattern of unconstitutional behavior in Sumner County schools included prayers over the loud speaker (led by students, but still unconstitutional), distribution of Bible to elementary students and examples of teacher endorsement of religion.

Sumner County settled the suit, agreeing to eliminate unconstitutional practices.  The allegations in Sabine Parish, however, are far worse because they outline a far more pervasive effort by school officials to promote religion throughout the school culture.   If these allegations are true, many administrators (including the top administrator for the district) and many teachers have been complicit in doing nothing less than converting a public school into a Christian school in flagrant violation of the law.

What struck me about the allegations here wasn’t just what the teachers are doing but the response of administrators. Is that another factor that perhaps distinguishes this case from other public-school cases you’ve looked at over the years?

Yes, it is very unusual for a superintendent of schools to encourage and enable unconstitutional behavior, as is alleged in this case.  The violations alleged in this case do not appear to be isolated incidents or one-off mistakes.  These allegations appear to represent a pervasive attempt to promote the Christian faith throughout the school culture.  Such open and extensive defiance of the law would not happen—could not happen—without school administrators leading the way.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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