Preferential Treatment of Praying Parents is Ruled Unconstitutional
ACLU Wins Judicial Victory for Religious Freedom in Tennessee
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
NASHVILLE – School officials at a Tennessee school district and elementary school violated the Constitution by encouraging a variety of religious activities to occur at the school, Judge Robert Echols of the United States District Court of Middle Tennessee ruled on Thursday.
The lawsuit, Doe v. Wilson County School System, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee (ACLU-TN) charged that a variety of religious activities occurring at Lakeview Elementary School in Mt. Juliet, including praying during school hours by a group of parents who then distributed fliers in classrooms informing individual students they had been prayed for, were unconstitutional.
“In a strongly worded 59-page decision, the Judge ruled that school officials were engaged in a systematic pattern of religious violations and that the school supported and tolerated religious activities taking place on its campus,” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN Executive Director.
After nearly two years of litigation, the Court ruled that Lakeview Elementary School administrators can not continue to give preferential treatment to a religious group called the Praying Parents. In the past, this religious group was given nearly unfettered access to students and faculty to promote Christianity and prayer. In finding that these activities violated the First Amendment, the Court found that the effect of the group’s predominant religious purpose was to advance Christianity at Lakeview.
The school administration apparently agreed with the group’s purpose and activities and did not properly monitor and supervise their activities on school property, and, by allowing these activities, the school tacitly or overtly endorsed the group’s activities. By doing so the school became excessively entangled with the group’s religious activities, and abandoned the school’s constitutional obligation to maintain strict neutrality toward religion.
The Court issued an injunction preventing any group from being given preferential treatment and ordering that all individuals and groups requesting access to the school request permission and be treated equally. The Court also admonished the school for allowing teachers and administrators to be active participants in religious activities at the school, for displaying the Ten Commandments in the school hallway and for allowing the distribution of Gideon’s Bibles to students.
Ultimately, the Court concluded that certain practices at Lakeview Elementary School during the 2005-2006 school year did not have a secular purpose and were allowed or pursued to tacitly approve the activities of the Praying Parents, which had the primary effect of endorsing or promoting Christian beliefs and programs at the school. In addition, the Praying Parents practices and programs at the school caused the Lakeview administrators and teachers to become excessively entangled with religion in violation of the Establishment Clause.
According to Weinberg, “The decision makes it very clear that private groups like the Praying Parents cannot and should not serve as surrogates for the public schools and promote religious activities during the school day,” said Weinberg.
The ACLU lawsuit was filed on behalf of a former Lakeview kindergarten student and his parents, who say their attempt to have school officials cease the religious activities on campus were rebuffed. The family also says school officials encouraged them to withdraw their child from the school.
A trial in the case was necessitated only after a last-minute settlement—agreed upon by both the ACLU of Tennessee and school officials—was rejected by a 3-2 vote of the Wilson County School Board.
Edmund J. Schmidt III was the ACLU-TN Cooperating Attorney.
Upon hearing about the Court ruling, the Does issued a statement saying, “We are very happy about the decision and grateful to all those people who stood with us. We hope this begins a time of healing for the community.”
Judge Echols’ decision can be found at www.aclu-tn.org/pdfs/DoeDecision.pdf
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