ACLU Takes Up Student's Case After School Reportedly Scolds Him and Ignores Complaints

| by Alexander Rubinstein

The parents of a high school student are suing River Forest Community School Corp. of Indiana over allegations one of its schools violated the First Amendment rights of their son and other students by holding prayers before school events.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana has taken up the case of Jim and Nicole Bellar along with their son who is identified as J.B. in the U.S. District Court in Hammond, Indiana, after their complaints to the school went ignored. The case will be heard by the U.S. District Court in Hammond.

J.B., a sophomore at River Forest Jr./Sr. High School in Hammond, claims he has been forced to pray before participating in various sporting events. Allegedly, prayers are a common practice at most school events, including a graduation ceremony in which J.B.’s older sister participated last year.

The lawsuit says J.B. has played on several sports teams and that the school’s coaches say a prayer before most games and practices. Prayers usually invoke God or Jesus.

 J.B.’s older sister also experienced pre-game prayers involving school coaches, the lawsuit claims.

When J.B. complained initially, he was told by his coaches to sit silently, according to the lawsuit. He and his father went to the district’s athletics director, but their complaints were ignored. Later, they went to the principal and district leaders. At one point they were told their son should cooperate more with his coaches’ requests, reports California Business Litigation.

The Bellars regularly attend school board meetings, and prayers are custom before each session. The lawsuit says the River Forest Board of School Trustees holds prayers before the start of the meetings, one of which ended with, “(M)ost of all, we thank you for the greatest blessing of all, your son Jesus, and it is in his name we pray,” Post-Tribune reports.

The lawsuit claims the school sponsors student-led prayers at graduations and that the prayers have “overtly Christian themes.”

The U.S. Supreme Court set a precedent for school-sponsored prayers in the 1992 case Lee v. Weisman. The majority based its decision on the fact that “it is not the business of schools to sponsor or organize religious activities.” Doing so would be unconstitutional under the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution, reports First Amendment Center.

Prayer is considered constitutional at school events and in schools if it is student-initiated and student-led, along with some other restrictions. The Supreme Court has not specifically ruled on whether student-initiated, nonsectarian prayer is constitutional at graduation ceremonies, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

The Bellars are considering taking their son out of River Forest due to harassment from schoolmates over his objections to prayers, the lawsuit says. They are asking for nominal and compensatory damages. They also want the school to prohibit officials from leading prayers.

Sources: California Business Litigation, Post-Tribune, First Amendment Center, The Anti-Defamation League

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