By Simon Brown
It seems that some school boards in middle Tennessee have a lot to learn about religious freedom.
The Sumner County Board of Education has just settled a lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Tennessee after nine students complained that teachers led classroom prayers, religious organizations distributed Bibles at school, school events were held in churches and youth ministers preached to children unsupervised in school lunchrooms.
In its settlement, the school board didn’t admit any wrongdoing but it did promise that teachers won’t be allowed to pray with students, lead Bible study on school property or display religious images in the classroom. And church youth ministers won’t be allowed in lunchrooms unless it’s to meet with their own children.
The settlement still gives the schools quite a bit of leeway. Church property can be used for things like high school graduations, and students will be allowed to participate in truly voluntary religious activities such as prayers around the school flagpole.
According to the Nashville Tennessean, David French of TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, which represented the school board, grudgingly accepted the agreement.
“Our goal,” he said, “is to make sure the ACLU attack did not result in extraordinarily draconian restrictions that violated free speech rights of students and teachers.”
The ACLU is most certainly not trying to violate anyone’s free speech – it’s just trying to uphold constitutional principles and make sure that minorities, like Fernanda Foertter, are protected. Foertter, an atheist whose children attend Sumner schools, told the Tennesseanthat the settlement left her uneasy.
“I’m trying to be objective and not react emotionally here, but I think there’s still a lot of room for disobedience on the schools’ part,” she said. “I’m no lawyer, but one of the things we see is family members who can come in and roam around the school, talking and [proselytizing] with the kids. There’s a lot of this ‘wink, wink, talk to the kids about stuff’ going on now. How do we know if that’s going to stop?”
There is reason to wonder if the Sumner school board will change its ways since this is the third time in recent years that the ACLU has brought suit against a middle Tennessee school district over religion. In 2008, a court told Wilson County to cease religious activities in schools, and in 2010, Cheatham County was hit with a similar order.
The bottom line is that public schools are for learning, not religious indoctrination. If children and parents want official preaching and prayer sessions, they should visit one of their local churches. That’s what churches are there for. Minority rights and religious freedom must be protected from brazen flouting of church-state separation as has often been the case in middle Tennessee.
We hope that this is the last we’ll hear of lawsuits over unconstitutional expressions of religion in public schools in the state, but the Religious Right doesn’t readily take church-state separation lessons to heart nor does it give up easily.