A federal judge signed and entered a consent decree and order today in the ACLU’s case challenging widespread and pervasive religious practices in South Carolina’s Chesterfield County School District. The ACLU brought the lawsuit on behalf of a local father, Jonathan Anderson, and his son, who is a student at New Heights Middle School. Both are non-believers. The school district’s unlawful practices promoting religion garnered national attention after a video was posted online documenting a school-day assembly that featured a Christian rapper who calls himself “B-SHOC” (pictured). The assembly also included a sermon delivered by an evangelical youth minister, and students were asked to sign cards pledging themselves to Jesus. Students who did not want to attend the assembly were told that they could instead spend the afternoon in in-school suspension.
The B-SHOC concert was not the first or the last time that district officials sought to impose their religious beliefs on students. For several years, the Anderson family has endured official prayers and proselytizing at nearly every school event; religious iconography, including a copy of the Ten Commandments, adorned school walls; and teachers incorporated Biblical scripture into lessons. Mr. Anderson’s son was even ordered to copy religious essays as punishment for minor rules infractions, such as forgetting his belt and gym clothes. When Mr. Anderson objected to these activities, he was informed by the school principal that he needed to “get right with God.” Similarly, after his son told a teacher that the B-SHOC event would not be fun for him because he is an atheist, the teacher instructed, “I wouldn’t brag about that.”
The consent decree and order will bring these unconstitutional practices to an end and restore the Establishment Clause rights of the Andersons and all families throughout Chesterfield County schools. For the first time in years, students will be able to attend school without being coerced into prayer or other religious activities. They will not be subjected to unwanted preaching, religious messages, and symbols. They will not be made to feel like outsiders or second class-citizens by school officials merely because they do not practice the same faith or hold the same beliefs as others. And parents will be able to reclaim the right to decide what religious education, if any, their children receive. At the same time, under the consent decree, students who wish to pray or express their faith are still free to exercise those rights consistent with the protections offered by the Free Exercise Clause and Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.
In voting to approve the consent decree, the Chesterfield County School Board should be commended for recognizing that its previous policies and practices promoting religion are simply not defensible. Nor are these policies and practices sustainable as a practical matter in light of the increasing religious diversity enjoyed by South Carolina’s public schools.
More importantly, the Anderson family should be commended for having the courage to stand up for the Constitution. It is never easy to serve as a plaintiff in an Establishment Clause case, especially when the litigation involves children: Those who dare to defend these rights are often subjected to public scorn and harassment of the worst kind. Indeed, the Anderson family has already been targeted online with many misguided and outright hateful comments and has even been harassed at home. At the same time, however, there are many who have supported the Andersons because they understand that enforcing the law in this area is not an attack on religion. Rather, by prohibiting school-sponsored prayer and other official religious activities, lawsuits of this nature advance fundamental principles of religious liberty — namely, protecting all religions from the potentially corruptive power of the government and ensuring the right of individuals and families to freely follow any faith (or none at all) without governmental coercion or influence.