The Public School Where Prayer Is Everywhere

By Andrew Cohen
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.

In school districts with a large conservative Christian constituency, superintendents and principals do sometimes support practices that are, at best, gray areas in the law in an effort to please their constituency (and sometimes out of personal conviction). Superintendents in these communities who try to do the right thing under the law get considerable pushback.

In 2008, for example, the superintendent in Santa Rosa County, Florida tried to settle the ACLU lawsuit alleging unconstitutional prayer practices, but he got push back from many in the community who opposed the consent decree.  The superintendent in Mustang, OK cancelled the December holiday program in 2005—and then suffered a stinging rebuke when the voters rejected a school bond bid at the polls.  In the end, both superintendents were able to bring their communities around by proposing new polices that recognize the appropriate, constitutional role for religion in the schools (e.g., student religious expression; teaching about religions)—but require school officials to remain neutral toward religion.

Walk me through what you think is going to happen here. Let’s assume that these allegations are true, that this is happening inside this school. Does the Parish have a legitimate legal defense? What are the federal courts likely to do with this?

If these allegations are true, the school district has no legal defense.  Teachers and administrators in public schools are subject to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and thus required to remain neutral concerning religion while carrying out their duties. Teachers may teach about religion as long as such teaching is academically sound and objective.  But they may neither promote nor denigrate religion when teaching about religions in the classroom. 

As interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Establishment Clause prohibits public school endorsement or promotion of religion, including school-sponsored prayers (even when delivered by students) and posting of scriptures on school walls (unless used as temporary teaching aids when religion is being studied in history or other courses). I would expect the judge to grant the motion for a preliminary injunction. 

Given the strong likelihood of school district losing this case, I think the school district will enter into a consent degree requiring the district to end these practices and obey the law.  I hope that the agreement also requires First Amendment training for the teachers and administrators of Sabine Parish.

How prevalent are these cases? And do you see any trends here worth noting? Are school administrators becoming more bold in permitting overt religious doctrines and practices in public schools? Is there a political component here worth noting?

Although there are violations of the First Amendment on all sides, the trend in public schools is toward getting religion right. 

Yes, some public schools continue to unconstitutionally promote school-sponsored religious practices.  And yes, some public school teachers and administrators wrongly censor student religious expression and avoid study about religions in the curriculum. So there are violations of the letter—and the spirit—of the First Amendment in both directions.

One side argues that school promotion of religion is widespread, especially in the some areas of the country.  The other side argues that most public schools are hostile to religion and unconstitutionally deny the religious liberty rights of students. 

Both sides, however, are wrong to the extent that they characterize these violations as widespread in public schools today.  From my experience working with schools across the country, I would say that there is more student religious expression and more study about religions in public schools today than at any time in at least 100 years.  But contrary to dire warnings from the left and right, most of this religion goes to school today through the First Amendment door...

The allegations in Sabine Parish are a reminder, however, that we still have work to do.  Some school districts cling to the past when the majority faith in their communities was imposed in the schools.  They ignore the law – and refuse to implement the new consensus even though it supports a role for religion in the schools.  Other school districts remain so afraid of lawsuits and conflicts that they go too far in keeping religion out of the schools.  Ironically, the refusal to protect student religious expression leads to conflict and litigation.

I am, however, optimistic that we can get this right in places like Sabine Parish.  If we are going to live with our deep differences in what is now the most religiously diverse society on earth, we must get religion and religious liberty right in public schools.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/01/the-public-school-where-prayer-is-everywhere/283384/