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Bossier schools to settle religion lawsuit

by Minden Press-Herald

Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Bossier Parish School Board called Tuesday’s settlement regarding religion in schools a win for students and their families.

The settlement, which includes policy changes approved by the school board last week, will end a more than year-long legal dispute over the promotion of Christianity in Bossier public schools.

“This historic settlement is a victory for all Bossier families, and will ensure that children feel welcome and included in their own schools, regardless of what religion they do or don’t practice at home,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. “Bossier Parish allowed religious coercion to proliferate throughout their schools – that system will no longer exist and rigorous protections that are enforceable by law have been put in place for all students. We are thrilled that Bossier Parish Schools are now fulfilling the promise of religious freedom for all of their students.”

“The settlement allows for the closure of this case without the loss of any student rights, which is of utmost importance to the Board,” said Bossier Schools Superintendent Scott Smith. “We are pleased to be able to resolve this matter without impinging upon our students’ rights, which we see as a victory for all of Bossier Parish.”

On Feb. 7, 2018, Americans United filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of several Bossier Parish families that allege school teachers and officials proselytized Christianity in schools.

The Bossier Parish School Board and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State submitted a Consent Order to the Court for its consideration, following negotiations for a potential resolution of the case. Part of that Order calls for a slight revision of the Board’s Religious Expression Policy, a copy of which was attached to the filing with the Court.

An emailed statement from Bossier Schools says they are currently awaiting the Court’s action on the documents at this time, but Bossier Schools feels confident the revisions offered resolve most of the issues presented in the lawsuit and will be found agreeable by the Court.

“Since the beginning, it has been the Bossier Parish School Board’s resolve to stand united in an effort to preserve every student’s freedom of religious expression. This resolution does exactly that,” the statement said.

On Jan. 14, 2019, the Bossier Parish School Board approved a revised religious expression policy and agreed to a settlement with AU, which was filed with the federal district court today. Provisions of the settlement include:

  •    The historic creation of a monitoring committee to review and resolve potential violations or disputes involving religious freedom.

•    An agreement from the board to create, expand or seek out appropriate facilities to minimize the need to hold school events in houses of worship.

•    A commitment to protecting the rights of all Bossier students to pray in school, as long as the prayers are initiated by students, aren’t disruptive and don’t occur during class time.

•    Permission for Bossier teachers to teach about religion in an objective manner, but not proselytize students.

The Board also adopted a Religious Expression Policy last year, which Bossier Schools says resolved most of the issues presented in the lawsuit. Bossier Schools goes on to say the parties’ resolution simply provides for certain minor revisions in the policy to address its implementation.

The Bossier Parish School Board said it is pleased it could reach an agreement that:

•    Protects the rights of students to pray at school and at school events

•    Allows students to speak at school events

•    Does not penalize employees who bow their heads out of respect for such prayers when offered

•    Allows teachers of both substantive areas and the arts to teach about religion in an objective manner

•    Allows student clubs of all kinds, including FCA, to continue to organize, meet, and be active on campus

•    Allows students to express their own ideas verbally and to distribute literature

    •    Allows employees to wear items of jewelry that may include symbols associated with religion

“As a result of our lawsuit, there is now a substantial mechanism in place for the next 12 years to oversee and ensure that Bossier Parish Schools comply with the law and protect the religious-freedom rights of all students and their families,” said Richard B. Katskee, legal director of Americans United. “Nothing like this has ever been done before to safeguard religious freedom in public schools. Americans United is committed to a sustained presence in Bossier to ensure that the Constitution is being upheld.”

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