How bad does a school district have to be before an atheist group threatens to file a lawsuit over a violation of church/state separation? And how much worse must the district be when six different groups come together in telling them to stop?
That’s the situation in Louisiana’s Bossier Parish Schools, where Superintendent Scott Smith released a statement last week mandating that athletes stand during the National Anthem, forbidding them from staging any sort of protest.
… The least Bossier Schools can do is expect our student athletes to stand in solidarity when the National Anthem is played at sporting events in honor of those sacrifices.
In Bossier Parish, we believe when a student chooses to join and participate on a team, the players and coaches should stand when our National Anthem is played in a show of respect. This extends to those that elect to join a club or student organization, which requires a faculty sponsor…
Punishing students who protest by kneeling would be a violation of their own rights, but that wasn’t even the only concern. According to an attorney for American Atheists, last week’s football game between two schools in the district featured a pre-game Christian prayer over the loudspeaker, something that the Supreme Court has already said is illegal:
As the announcer at Airline High School’s stadium, where Parkway High School’s football team played Friday, asked the crowd to rise for a prayer and the national anthem, some Parkway players silently linked arms in their white jerseys, forming a line down the sideline.
A female student delivered the prayer, thanking Jesus.
The attorney called them out on that, too:
This is why six groups — American Atheists, Center for Inquiry, Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Humanist Association, Secular Coalition for America, and the Secular Student Alliance — have sent a joint letter to the District, telling them to put a stop to these egregious violations:
“If these reports about last week’s football game are correct, the Bossier Parish School District is trampling on the free-speech rights of students, and Airline High School is committing an additional violation of long-established law by broadcasting prayers before their football games,” said Geoffrey T. Blackwell, staff attorney for American Atheists. “School leaders have a moral obligation and a legal responsibility to protect the rights of students and parents. In Bossier Parish, they are failing miserably.”
Punishing students for speaking their minds runs counter to one of the main objectives of our public schools: training our children to become active participants in a free society. Moreover, it forces students and parents to protect their rights through litigation, the financial burden of which will ultimately be shouldered by the school districts themselves, whose resources would be far better spent on instructing students, rather than defending short-sighted violations of their fundamental freedoms.
We therefore request that Bossier Parish Schools rescind its policy regarding the National Anthem and inform the district’s students and parents that students will be permitted to express their views in a non-disruptive manner without fear of retribution. We also request that the district instruct the principals, administrators, and faculty on right to free speech enjoyed by all public school students.
By permitting and endorsing such prayer, the schools involved are sending a message that students of no religious faith, or those of minority faiths, are lesser than their Christian co-students. Such a message goes completely against the purpose of the public school system, which is the education of all children to be good and productive members of society, and instead places the religious views of only some on a pedestal.
The groups are asking the District to clarify or fix its policies on free speech and put an end to any formal prayers before games.
There’s no reason religious groups couldn’t have made the same request, but I’m glad these atheists are stepping up to protect people of all faiths, no faith, and those whose opinions may be in the minority. No school district has the right to force students to obey a “patriotic” ritual or sit through a loudspeaker prayer. And if it takes a lawsuit to make it happen, these groups aren’t afraid to fight.
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