How many church/state separation violations can one school district be guilty of? The River Forest Community School Corporation in Indiana was apparently trying to break a record last year.
Jim Bellar (“J.B.”) was a student completing his sophomore year in the District when he and his parents noticed several problems with the way the District handled religion.
There were the coach-led sectarian prayers before Jim’s football, basketball, and track matches:
… the coach will typically call the team together and announce that it is time to pray. The coach, assistant coaches, and team-members will kneel in a circle or huddle, and the coach will recite a prayer that generally mentions God or Jesus Christ, or else has other overtly Christian themes. On occasion, the assistant coaches will lead the prayer.
J.B. did not wish to participate in prayers or to have any of his teams pray before games. He and another player previously complained to his football coach about the prayers, and were told that they had the option to just sit there and be quiet but that the prayers would continue and that they had to remain huddled with the team.
When his family told the Athletic Director, Principal, and Superintendent about these prayers, they “were told generally that J.B. should simply learn to get along better with his coaches.”
There were also the sectarian prayers offered by the President of the School Board at their meetings, which were attended by Jim’s parents Jim and Nichole Bellar:
The prayers offered during School Board meetings almost always (or perhaps always) reference God or Jesus Christ, or else have other overtly Christian themes.
And there was the formal Christian prayer at River Forest Jr./Sr. High School’s graduation ceremony in 2014, which the whole family attended:
At the behest of the High School and/or the School Corporation, these graduation ceremonies contain a prayer or invocation, which typically has overtly Christian themes and references.
The decision to have a prayer at the graduation was made by administrators of the School Corporation, and not by the individual student who gave the prayer. The graduation program contains a listing for “invocation” immediately after the singing of the national anthem.
Any one of these things would have been illegal. But when one District is guilty of all of them, you have to wonder whether these adults think they work for a public school district or a local church.
The family filed a lawsuit last year against the District (with the help of the ACLU of Indiana), saying that Jim (the son) was harassed because he refused to stay silent and play along with the District’s promotion of Christianity:
Even in Indiana, this should have been an open/shut case that resulted in the District having to shell out taxpayer money for its own irresponsibility. But as of today, no such thing has happened.
[Jim’s] parents are contemplating removing him from the School Corporation for the 2015-16 school year, even though J.B. would prefer to continue attending the High School, because they feel that J.B. has been singled out for harassment due to his opposition to the religious prayers that form the basis for this action.
If anything, things have gotten much worse, according to reporter Jerry Davich.
Jim, who left the District and is now completing his education online, regrets filing the lawsuit because of what it did to his life:
“The ACLU should really warn people, especially in small towns, how much you will pay for doing the right thing,” Bellar told me. “I wouldn’t ever subject my family to this if I had known the truth.”
Bellar claims his family’s emotional stress has worsened since the lawsuit was filed. They’ve lost friends, lost sleep and lost credibility in their community, Bellar said.
“This has destroyed me,” he said.
It’s also not clear that they’ll receive any money at all. While a settlement may still be reached that would stop the District from promoting religion, the payout to the family would hardly change their lives:
The ACLU did not immediately respond to me Tuesday for comment with this column but, according to Bellar, an offer is on the table from the school district. I can’t share its details, but its cash settlement toward damages is nowhere near a jackpot.
I can understand the frustration and anger that Jim is feeling. It’s the reason anonymity is so important in cases like these and the reason more lawsuits aren’t filed against public school districts that are clearly violating the law: When you fight the majority, you’re in for a lot of abuse, even when you’re right.
But I would take issue with Davich’s approach to the situation:
I’m agnostic and I also don’t agree with school-sanctioned prayers for students if they’re fundamentally against the practice and feel ostracized or ridiculed.
But, like I told my son during his high school days, it’s not a big deal and we’re not the ones to make it a big deal. Simply bow your head for a few seconds out of respect to others. This is exactly what I continue to do during all prayers from any religious group.
That may be something you tell your son so he doesn’t end up in the same spot Jim is in right now, but it’s a horrible blanket policy.
The only reason Christians are allowed to push their faith through the government is precisely because most people are too afraid to speak up. Remember: We’re not talking about legal, private, student-led prayer. This is coming from the top down. These are adult employees coercing students to pray to the Christian God.
What we need are more brave students willing to speak up, regardless of the personal costs, not a bunch of people who’ll put fingers in their ears because they lack the courage to take a stand.
Yes, we should warn students about what they may be in for. It wasn’t fair to Jim that he went into this lawsuit unclear about the potential consequences. But he did the right thing. He should be proud of that. When other students whiffed, his family had courage. That deserves a reward.
(Thanks to Brian for the link. Large portions of this article were posted earlier)