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WPSB passes religious expression guidelines

Policy part of board’s response to ACLU lawsuit

Schools in Webster Parish may soon be experiencing some changes in procedures regarding religious expression.

The Webster Parish School Board met in a special session Monday night to discuss the status of the highly publicized religion lawsuit filed by Christy Cole and the ACLU. After nearly an hour in executive session, the board passed a detailed policy called “Religious Expression and Activities on Campus and at School Events.”

This nine-page policy, enacted in response to the lawsuit, goes into specifics about what students, teachers, and school system employees are allowed to do in the arena of religious expression and what they are not.

For example, the policy spells out how the school district will handle the topic of student speakers at school events moving forward. Students who hold a “position of distinction based on neutral criteria” may volunteer to introduce an event, and each application to do so must be evaluated by the principal. More relevant is the policy’s position on the subject matter of these event introductions.

“…the subject of the student introductions must be related to the purpose of the event and to the purpose of marking the opening of the event,” the policy reads. However the next paragraph reads, “If and when a student voluntarily chooses to reference or include religious viewpoints in his or her remarks, the school district shall not discriminate against the student’s viewpoint.”

Other issues such as hosting off-site school events at religious venues and teachers promoting personal religious beliefs are addressed as well.

“School officials shall not offer a prayer, recite a prayer alongside or with students, bow their heads, kneel, join hands or otherwise posture in a manner that is likely to be perceived as an endorsement of the prayer,” the policy reads.

The policy passed with one opposing vote from John Madden, representing district 6. Jerry Lott of district 11 abstained from voting.

Overall, the specifications and wording of the policy seem to reflect the guidelines of the Student Rights Review published in January by Attorney General Jeff Landry and U.S. Representative Mike Johnson. In other words, the guidelines preserve and spell out student religious rights while ensuring Webster Parish school stay within the letter of the law.

After the meeting, school board members said the policy is the first of several steps toward a legal response to the ACLU lawsuit, with further steps set to be discussed this week.

A more detailed breakdown of the policy and its implications will appear in the Press-Herald later this week.