November 18, 2019

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit today challenging widespread promotion of religion by officials in the Smith County School System. Brought on behalf of two families, the lawsuit alleges that school officials regularly incorporate prayer into school events and proselytize students in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“When I was in the military, I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution, which includes religious freedom,” said Kelly Butler, a U.S. Army veteran and father to several children who attend Smith County schools. “It’s wrong for the public schools to make my family feel like second-class citizens because of our beliefs.”

Butler and his children are atheists, as are plaintiffs Sharona and Jason Carr and their children.

The unlawful activities reported by the families span several school years and include, among other practices, 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; coaches leading or participating in prayer with student athletes; and a large cross painted on the wall of a school athletic facility.

“At school everybody makes it seem like you have to believe in one thing, just like them. It’s very awkward and uncomfortable,” said plaintiff Leyna Carr, a student at Smith County High School. “I respect other people’s religion, and I would like it if everyone else would respect my beliefs.”

“When public schools promote religion, it sends an impermissible message that students who don’t share the favored religious beliefs don’t belong,” said Heather L. Weaver, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “Our clients are part of the school community, and school officials have no right to alienate them in this way.”

“Public schools are supposed to be places where all students are welcomed and given access to quality education, regardless of their religious beliefs,” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN executive director. “The religious freedom of Tennessee families can only be protected if the government is not promoting or sponsoring religious activities. Decisions about whether and how to practice religion are best left to families and faith communities, not public schools.”

The complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee can be found at: https://www.aclu.org/legal-document/butler-v-smith-county-complaint

The plaintiffs are also seeking a preliminary injunction to put an immediate end to the unconstitutional practices identified in the complaint.

The three student plaintiffs comment on their experience here: https://www.aclu.org/news/religious-liberty/students-told-they-would-be-better-off-if-they-had-jesus-in-their-life

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