Agreement limits religious expression

ACLU declares victory in case

The Webster Parish School Board and the American Civil Liberties Union have reached the first stage of a settlement in their religious promotion lawsuit, a settlement which includes judgment in favor of the ACLU.

A consent decree signed by all parties was approved Friday by a federal judge. This binding court order prohibits all school officials in the Webster Parish School District from promoting prayer at religious events, organizing religious services such as baccalaureate, hosting school events at religious venues unless absolutely necessary, and promoting personal religious beliefs to students.

“This is a victory for all students at Webster Parish School District, who now have the right to pray – or not to pray – free from interference or coercion from school officials,” said ACLU of Louisiana Staff Attorney Bruce Hamilton. “Christy Cole and her daughter stood up for all students’ religious freedom, and this agreement is a testament to their courage and conviction that students and families, not government bureaucrats, have the right to decide how and whether to pray.”

The ACLU filed the lawsuit on December 18, 2017 on behalf of Christy Cole and her daughter, who attends Lakeside Junior/Senior High School. The lawsuit accused the school district of widespread unconstitutional promotion of Christianity in its schools.

On April 16, 2018, the school board adopted a new religious expression policy in response to the lawsuit, attempting to align its stance on student, faculty and staff religious expression with current law. Revisions and additions were made to the policy, and it was incorporated into the consent decree issued by the court.

A consent decree is a form of settlement that allows both parties to resolve a dispute without admitting liability, helping them avoid prolonged legal battles and fees. A paragraph of the court order issued Friday reads as follows.

“The defendants admit that there is a factual basis to support a finding by the court that incidents have occurred violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, defendants continue to deny those factual allegations that were originally denied in their answer to plaintiffs’ complaint and specifically deny all allegations of wrongdoing asserted against Johnny Rowland, Denny Finley, and any other employee of the Webster Parish School Board.”

With this partial concession from the school board, the court order said some of the board’s policies, practices, and customs violate the First Amendment because they “(a) endorse and promote religion, (b) have the purpose or effect of advancing religion, and/or (c) coerce religious exercise either directly or indirectly.” In light of this ruling, the court spelled out five sections of permanent injunctions to the school district.

These injunctions were based on the religious expression policy passed by the board in April. For example, the policy line prohibiting school officials from bowing their heads during student-led prayer remains intact in the court order.

While the policy sections governing religious expression by school officials have some even stricter language added to them, the sections concerning student expression are not addressed in the injunctions.

“Our board adopted policies that the judge approved and signed off on,” said Johnny Rowland, Webster Parish Superintendent of Schools. “What is very important to me and to the board is that in no way have our students’ rights to pray and express their religious beliefs been infringed upon through the policies put in place. We are pleased that our students have every right to show their religious expression by every means that the Constitution allows.”

In addition to the injunctions, beginning in the fall of 2018, the Webster Parish School District must provide training to all employees about the school’s obligations under this agreement. All materials used in this training must be reviewed by the ACLU.

While the ruling has gone in favor of the ACLU, matters of monetary compensation, such as for alleged mental and emotional damages, are still under dispute.

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