Prayer in public schools takes center stage in Louisiana

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LOUISIANA – The state of Louisiana is known for its political conservatism, particularly in terms of religious freedom. According to Pew Forum, the state is 84% Christian, which is 14 percentage above the U.S. total percentage. The majority of those people are reportedly Evangelical Christians (27%), “Historically” Black Protestant (22%), and Catholics (26%). All of those figures are also larger than U.S. totals. Therefore, it is not surprising to find Louisiana is one of the major battle grounds for religious freedom, not only at a local level but at a state level. This has been true for cases involving public school prayer in recent months.

Today we look at two current and connected cases evolving in the state. While neither specifically involves Pagans, Heathens, or polytheists, the outcomes of such cases can and do affect everyone in the region or state, and can also have broader affects on the future of policy making elsewhere in the country.

Child prays over school lunch [public domain]

Webster Parish

One school system in Louisiana, Webster Parish, has settled a lawsuit with the ACLU over the daily use of Christian prayer during morning announcements. ACLU attorney Bruce Hamilton said in a statement: “The school districts created an environment so suffused with religious messages and proselytizing that students who didn’t want to participate, didn’t feel free to do so.”

According to reports, Christy Cole and her daughter, Kaylee prompted the lawsuit after complaining not only about the morning prayers but also about religious messages found in other sanctioned school activities. “Virtually all school events — such as sports games, pep rallies, assemblies, and graduation ceremonies — include school-sponsored Christian prayer, religious messages and/or proselytizing,” reads the legal document.

After the lawsuit was filed in January, the school system moved from morning prayers to a moment of silence. Then in May, the school board settled the lawsuit, acknowledging that it had violated the Constitution on some accounts but not all. In its response document, the board admitted, for example, that a morning prayer was routinely held and that students were permitted to offer voluntary prayers with teacher support. Both activities, as it writes, have stopped. However, the board denied a number of complaints, including preferential treatment for members of the Future Christian Athletes Club and other acts that might be considered coercion.

The board’s response document concludes that, with the recent changes to policy regarding prayer as outlined in the response, there is no longer a need for court involvement. An agreement was reached and approved by a federal judge.

According to the ACLU, “under the consent decree, Webster Parish School District is prohibited from promoting prayers during school events, organizing religious services for students, unnecessarily holding school events at religious venues, and allowing school officials to promote their personal religious beliefs to students. Webster Parish will also provide faculty training and education on the school’s obligations.”

The ACLU, the Coles, and many locals see this case as a win for Webster Parish and for religious freedom as a whole, but not everyone. The town is predominantly Christian and that belief structure is reportedly deeply woven into local culture. One resident told CNN that he will fight for the souls of the local children, saying “If you begin to tell me that my children do not have the right to pray in school, then that’s an attack upon the relationship I have with my God and the relationship that they have with our God.”

A similar lawsuit, filed in February by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, is still pending in the Bossier Parish school district. That school board has since adopted similar prayer policies to Webster in advance of settlement.

Senate Bill 512

In April, State Senator Ryan Gatti (R) introduced Senate Bill 512, which permits for student-led prayers on school property before, during, and after school. It also permits for employee participation in student-led prayers, should a student ask or the employee volunteer. The final bill, which was revised from the original to remove the need for parent consent, reads:

Upon the request of any public school student or students, the proper school authorities may permit students to gather for prayer in a classroom, auditorium, or other space that is not in use, at any time before the school day begins when the school is open and students are allowed on campus, at any time after the school day ends provided that at least one student club or organization is meeting at  that time, or at any noninstructional time during the school day. A school employee may be assigned to supervise the gathering if such supervision is also requested by the student or students and the school employee volunteers to supervise the gathering.

The original bill was amended in the Senate’s committee and then passed 29-0, sending it to the House. The House then amended the bill again, removing much of the bulk of the text, including the need for parental consent and adding a teacher’s right to prayer as well. On May 16, the House passed this final bill 99-0, moving the bill to the Senate where it went back to committee.

The bill was first rejected due to the House amendments. However, as it is now being reported, a new committee was formed and a new vote was taken. The bill was approved with the House amendments and is now in the hands of the governor for signing.

In a May 7 letter to the Louisiana legislature, Nikolas Nartowicz, counsel for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU), wrote, ” These bills encourage school employees to violate settled constitutional law that prohibits school employees from participating in prayer during the school day. If either bill were enacted, they would make students feel pressured to join their teacher’s religious practices in order to feel welcome. Passage would certainly result in litigation, the costs of which local school boards will be forced to bear.”

Nartowicz is referring to both SB 512 and SB 253. The latter bill, which uses the same language as 512, was introduced in March and is still currently in the House waiting on a vote.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, an Atheist nonprofit watchdog organization, reacted: “Many Louisiana teachers will see this new law [SB 512] as an excuse to participate in student prayers, which FFRF fears is the intent of lawmakers and, because it is illegal, exposes the school districts to serious legal and financial liability. Remaining quiet and respectful during student prayers has, of course, always been legally permissible. But this bill sends teachers and coaches a message that they can quietly participate, which violates legal precedent.”

As FFRF notes, the final bill not only gives permission to the administration to allow teachers to supervise student-led prayers on school grounds before, after, or during school, but it also gives teachers permission to participate or bow their heads “during a student-led, student-initiated prayer so that the employee may treat the students’ religious beliefs and practices with deference and respect.”

FFRF is fearful that this language will give teachers, employees, and administrators the legally ability to engage in the coercive activities that led to the lawsuits against the Webster Parish and Bossier school boards.

That fear is well-grounded in the fact that Senator Gatti, who wrote and introduced SB 512, represents Bossier Parish, and has reportedly said that he introduced SB 512 specifically in reaction to the AU lawsuit against his local school board.