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Tenn. school district settles lawsuit with ACLU, agrees to stop 'imposing religion on students'

Tenn. school district settles lawsuit with ACLU, agrees to stop 'imposing religion on students'

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A school district in Tennessee has agreed to an injunction requiring district officials to cut back on religious expression during the school day and at sporting events.

A federal judge in Tennessee issued the injunction Monday, putting an end to a nearly yearlong legal battle that began when the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Tennessee brought a lawsuit on behalf of two parents concerned about the school district “unconstitutionally imposing religion on students.”

Now that the school district has agreed to abide by the terms of the order, the lawsuit has ended.

In a press release, the ACLU of Tennessee described the ruling as a “victory for religious freedom.”

It claimed the school district engaged in “unconstitutional activities” over the years, including “school-directed prayer during mandatory assemblies; the distribution and display of Bibles during classes; Bible verses posted in hallways and shared in notes from school staff to students; prayers broadcast through loudspeakers at school sporting events … and a large Latin cross painted on the wall of a school athletic facility.”

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The injunction forbids district officials from “promoting, advancing, endorsing, participating in, or causing Prayers during or in conjunction with School Events for any school within the School District,” promoting their religious beliefs in class, and taking retaliatory action against the plaintiffs who brought the case against the school district.

“Today’s victory is a reminder to school districts all over the country that public schools have no right to push religion on students or create a religiously exclusionary and hostile environment,” said Heather L. Weaver, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

Plaintiff Kelly Butler commented, “I’m relieved the school district recognized that its widespread promotion of religion was unconstitutional. My children, and all children, deserve an education that is free from the type of religious coercion that our family has suffered.”

The Smith County Board of Education released a statement in response to the settlement: “The Complaint filed to initiate the lawsuit made numerous allegations and asserted claims that the Board violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution through its ‘customs, policy and practice.’

“Most of the Complaint’s 82 paragraphs of allegations were determined to have no factual support, but some allegations potentially violated the requirements of the First Amendment as determined by the United States Supreme Court.”

The district maintained its “desire to ensure that its students’ rights to freely exercise their religious beliefs including their right to engage in constitutionally appropriate prayer continue to be protected.”

“This resolution ensures Constitutionally appropriate prayer remains in schools,” explained the Board of Education.

The settlement comes as a high-profile secularist group declared victory earlier this week after a school in Tennessee agreed to comply with their complaint by removing a “preachy” social media post.

On July 26, Alamo City School in Alamo, Tennessee, posted a graphic on Facebook featuring cartoon images of a school building and happy school children embracing one another.

The top of the graphic read: “School Begins Soon! Let’s provide our CHILDREN, TEACHERS, STAFF, and ADMINISTRATORS with all the PPE they need!”

Rather than standing for “personal protective equipment,” the post explained that the “PPE” acronym stood for “Park & Pray Every day!”

“Driving past a school?” the graphic asked. “Pull in, park and pray for our children, teachers and staff!”

“Driving past an administration building? Pull in, park and pray for our leaders! Driving past a bus lot? Pull in, park and pray for our bus drivers!”

The social media post caught the attention of a “concerned complainant,” who contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based secular organization committed to “protecting the constitutional principle of the separation of state and church.”

The FFRF frequently puts pressure on schools and government officials to end the perceived endorsement of religion.

The FFRF quickly contacted Alamo City School, informing them that the Facebook post “endorses religion in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

“It is well settled that public schools may not advance, prefer or promote religion,” FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Alamo City School District Director Reecha Black.

“Advancing, preferring and promoting religion is exactly what a school district does when it posts religious messages on official public social media pages. These religious messages give the appearance of district endorsement of religion over nonreligion and exert on exclusionary influence on many families."

Black recently addressed FFRF’s complaint, informing the organization: “We have removed the post from our website.” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor praised Black’s decision.

“It is hard to understand why a school district would urge strangers to drive into school parking lots or by buses, where small children may be present and traffic hazards abound, much less for the purpose of prayer,” she said. “But sometimes, school districts don’t realize how alienating some of their messages can be. We’re always there to nudge them to be more inclusionary.”

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