Imagine if your child was ridiculed in front of his classmates for his religious beliefs until he was physically ill. Can’t believe it? Neither could we, and that’s why the ACLU and the ACLU of Louisiana sued the Sabine Parish School District on behalf of C.C., a sixth-grader of Thai descent and a practicing Buddhist. You remember C.C.: He was chastised by teachers and administrators at his Louisiana public school for his religious beliefs. School officials also repeatedly, and illegally, imposed their religious beliefs on students in a number of ways.
Today, C.C. and his family won. A federal district court entered an order requiring the school district to refrain from unconstitutionally promoting or denigrating religion. The court’s order also mandates in-service training for school staff regarding their obligations under the First Amendment.
When we filed the lawsuit, many people were shocked by the allegations. In addition to denigrating C.C.’s Buddhist faith by calling it “stupid,” school officials suggested he should transfer to another school with “more Asians.” They also taught creationism in science class, incorporated prayer into class and nearly every school event, hung a portrait of Jesus over the main entryway, and participated in a number of other activities that blatantly violated the separation of church and state.
The court’s order, which took the form of a “consent decree” agreed to by the school board, ensures that these unlawful practices will be discontinued in Sabine Parish and brings the case to a close. We applaud the board for doing right by C.C., his siblings, and all district students.
Unfortunately, however, not everyone has reacted to the lawsuit with the same measured consideration as the school board. While C.C. and his family have received much support from the community (including from some local congregations) and from across the country, they also have been harassed via crank calls to their house and work. And last month, C.C.’s mother Sharon was accosted while doing yard work: Three people wearing KKK-type white hoods drove by her and shouted, “You fucking nigger Asian-loving bitch.”
These incidents further highlight why it is so important that public schools throughout Louisiana, many of which continue to flout the law in this area, rethink their approach to religious liberty.
Had Sabine Parish proactively sought to comply with the Constitution in the first place, the Lanes would not have been forced to expose their family to such vitriol, harassment, and intimidation simply to assert their fundamental rights. We hope their experience and the consent decree will serve as important tools to educate Louisiana’s educators – public school officials – about real religious liberty.
Real religious liberty includes not only the right to express and practice your faith in school, which the consent decree protects, but also the right to be free from the religious coercion and alienation that occurs when a teacher or other school official tries to impose his or her beliefs during class or school events. Real religious liberty means that every child, regardless of faith, should feel welcome in our public schools.