Will Bastrop High School Stop Violating the Constitution?

Instead of taking on Bastrop High School in Louisiana separately, several organizations have banded together to send the Bastrop Independent School District a letter of disapproval (PDF). It’s a nice gesture, but it won’t ultimately make any difference.

Notice how the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, and ACLU of Louisiana are tiptoeing around any threat of a lawsuit.

Our organizations are deeply troubled by Bastrop High School’s long history of presenting prayers as part of the official program at graduation ceremonies. Although the Supreme Court made it abundantly clear almost two decades ago that public schools cannot include prayers as part of school events, School District officials have persisted with this practice.

Only when a student complained and threatened to sue did the School District take steps to discontinue the practice by replacing the prayer with a moment-of-silence. The steps taken, however, were far from effective. Instead of having a school official introduce the moment-of- silence — which would have ensured that the opportunity was not abused — school officials turned to a student. Not surprisingly, the student chose to deliver the Lord’s Prayer — while school officials sat idly by. To date, no apology has been delivered to the community by Bastrop High School officials or the Board of Trustees, for either past or recent events.

It is certainly not surprising that the student did not obey the School’s express directions, for she has been educated by a school system that has itself chosen to flout constitutional requirements. The school system’s longstanding disregard for constitutional norms has predictably bred a culture of noncompliance. This persistent culture will remain entrenched unless and until the School District takes at least some of the following actions:

  • Issue a statement to the community and its students explaining the District’s legal duty to enforce and abide by the legal prohibition on the public schools’ sponsorship of graduation prayer, and assuring the community that past events will not recur. The School should use this opportunity to further its mission to educate the community and future graduating classes about legal requirements.
  • Issue an apology to the student complainant, who was treated as a pariah not just by the community but by the School itself. Instead, he should have been honored for protecting a precious constitutional principle and calling the District’s attention to a longstanding, egregious violation of the law.
  • Consider disciplining the student for insubordination to the same extent that it would discipline other similar infractions, insofar as the District retains jurisdiction to do so. The student’s insubordination is especially troubling here because of the School’s history of sponsoring and encouraging prayers in the past.
  • In the future, the school system should ensure that graduation exercises are not exploited to present religious messages. The moment-of-silence can be presented by a school official rather than a student. If a student is used, the District cannot passively sit by if the student once again abuses this opportunity.

We urge Bastrop Independent School District officials to assure the community of their intent to comply with constitutional requirements. A decision to remain silent would serve to confirm that the prayer that was presented at the 2011 graduation was just the most recent in a long line of unconstitutional District-sponsored prayers.

Is anyone expecting school officials to do anything in response? They knew exactly what violations they were committing before Damon Fowler called them out on it. They knew what they were doing when they allowed a Christian student to say the Lord’s Prayer during graduation. And this letter hardly encourages them to stop the violations.

(via Americans United)

  • Sackbut

    These organizations have excellent legal teams. I am sure they are careful about making the decision to file suit, and have reasons for not doing so at this juncture. Students can indeed pray in such circumstances, if they are doing so of their own choice, if the school has not screened the remarks. I suspect that the climate at the school would mean many students “choose” to pray in their remarks. I suspect there is still a violation here, having to do with the school encouraging a student to add a prayer and having a student introduce the moment of silence in the first place, but I am not a lawyer. I do suspect this is not over, though.

  • http://hoverFrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    The Lord’s Prayer appears in the Bible directly after instructions to pray in private rather than parade a person’s piety to the crowd? Matthew 6:5-8.

    A lesson that many Christians in the US seem to be unaware of for some reason.

  • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

    Sometimes force, whether it’s via lawsuit, nonviolent protest, or federal action, needs to be used against entrenched and delusional lunatics. What would have happened of the Union let the South leave? What about Civil Rights struggle in the US or the protests in North Africa? We should not shy away from confrontation but welcome it.

  • http://www.geekexile.com Brian Fields

    I think the issue might be one of standing. Since Damon left the area (understandably, not blaming him), don’t they need someone local to challenge the district?

  • echidna

    A decision to remain silent would serve to confirm that the prayer that was presented at the 2011 graduation was just the most recent in a long line of unconstitutional District-sponsored prayers.

    It may be that the question that is unresolved is whether the school endorsed the prayer, or if the students acted contrary to the school’s wishes.

    If the school does not act on this letter, it would be consistent with a culture of illegally seeking to establish Christianity. It would be another piece of evidence to add to the picture. Alternatively, if the school takes steps to comply with the law, then that too is a win.

  • http://tangenttalk.blogspot.com Rob

    Brian, I believe they can sue based on his residency at the time of the offense. I’m pretty sure you do need someone local in general, but he should satisfy that.

    As far as filing suit, that costs time and money. If they can get the school to comply with a letter, then problem solved without litigation. The threat of a lawsuit is implied in the letter and the source.

  • http://www.ooblick.com/weblog/ arensb

    I once heard an interview with Annie Laurie Gaylor in which she said that the FFRF starts with a letter, because a lot of the time that’s all it takes.

    There’s also the fact that if you start with a polite letter and go from there, you look like the reasonable party. If you jump straight to the lawsuit phase, you look as though you’re overreacting, or overly-sensitive, or looking for a fight.

  • mihoda

    No offense intended towards Damon but when you cry, “ACLU” as a threat on your school not only are you likely to face some shit from the administration, but the ACLU is going to resent being used as your personal attack dog before being consulted.

    I mean suing is all well and good, but these guys do this kind of stuff pro-bono on a case-by-case basis.

  • Sackbut

    @arensb, FFRF already contacted the school several times.

    @mihoda, I don’t think saying “I’m going to contact the ACLU” is any different from saying “I’m going to contact a lawyer.” The ACLU is under no obligation to sue just because someone threatened to contact them.

  • Janice in Toronto

    Nothing will change. The school will simply thumb their nose at the organizations protesting the criminal actions of the school.

    You’re not dealing with rational adults here, you’re dealing with religions zealotry.

    After all, they have God on their side you know…

  • walkamungus

    “Moment of silence” should not be hyphenated. Correctly spelled and punctuated threatening letters are more effective. :)

  • Zarathustra

    This whole Bastrop ordeal is absurd. Perhaps it would be wise for the organizations sending the letter to read this bit from unreasonable faith on Madison and seperation of church and state

  • az

    just cut all the schools funding until they comply

  • Ron in Houston

    Americans United just filed a lawsuit in Texas so I guess their time and resources are probably taxed by that suit.

    It is very time consuming and expensive the bring these suits. The only upside is that the District will be forced to pay the costs if the suit is successful. For many districts that is a strong incentive to change the policy.

  • Rich Wilson
  • Suzanne

    I feel like it would be somewhat hypocritical of the school to punish the student that said the prayer, if they supported her in doing so to begin with. Sure, it was wrong of her to do so, but all those supporting her and encouraging her to do so were just as bad… I mean, people should be responsible for their actions, but somehow it just seems weird for THEM to punish her.

    They should definitely take all the other actions stated, though.

  • Ben

    Maybe one letter wouldn’t have much impact on a bunch of self-righteous, close-minded bigots who think they own the town.

    But I wonder what would happen if each one of us who are reading this blog right now sat down and composed a short, hand-written letter and mailed it to the Bastrop ISD. I’m imagining boatloads of snail mail clogging up the system. Especially if they were mailed to the school itself, instead of some district office, where the students would see the impact.

    ‘Scuse me while I find a pen…

  • http://n/a Dustin Finney

    Allowing students to offer the prayer, “of their own accord,” is a common loophole used to get around the law. A school can simply say, “Hey, we don’t check speeches for content (wink, wink – nudge, nudge), so we can’t be held responsible for a student exercising their First Amendment right to free expression as long as it doesn’t involve lewdness or obscenity.”

    I think the joint letter was basically a last warning. Now that the Bastrop school administration can be reasonably argued to be aware of the risks of allowing a student to lead the moment-of-silence, it can less credibly use the shoulder-shrugging, ‘how were we supposed to know,’ excuse for future violations.

    I suspect if they don’t, and last week’s episode repeats itself, they will have a lawsuit on their hands, having been clearly and repeatedly warned. Note that the final bullet in the letter states, “In the future, the school system should ensure that graduation exercises are not exploited to present religious messages. The moment-of-silence can be presented by a school official rather than a student. If a student is used, the District cannot passively sit by if the student once again abuses this opportunity.”

  • http://askanatheist.tv Sam

    Good luck getting into a college, Bastrop graduates who are not Damon Fowler!


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