Court Order Requires Tennessee School District to Stop Promoting Religion

September 15, 2020 9:30 am

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In a victory for religious freedom, a federal district court issued a permanent injunction yesterday evening prohibiting the Smith County School System from unconstitutionally imposing religion on students. The court’s order comes in the form of a consent decree — an injunction agreed to by the school district to resolve a lawsuit filed last year by the ACLU and ACLU of Tennessee.

Brought on behalf of two families, the lawsuit alleged that school officials regularly incorporated prayer into school events and proselytized students in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The unconstitutional activities reported by the families spanned several school years and included, 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 Latin cross painted on the wall of a school athletic facility.

“The widespread promotion of religion by public-school officials is a form of religious discrimination that alienates minority-faith and atheist students and makes it harder for them to access educational services,” said Heather L. Weaver, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “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.”

In accordance with the consent decree entered by the court, school officials may not incorporate official prayer into school events, pray with students, or encourage or promote student prayer. They also are prohibited from promoting their personal religious beliefs to students, posting religious iconography, and inviting outside guests or third parties to pray during school events, proselytize students, or distribute religious literature to students in class.

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

“Families should be making the decisions about whether and how to educate their children about religion, not public schools,” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU of Tennessee executive director. “Today’s consent decree ensures that the Smith County schools will be focused on providing a quality education to all students, regardless of their religious beliefs.”

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