There is a troubling case out of Sabine Parish, Louisiana which, according to a Buddhist family, acted more like a real parish than a public school district. A Buddhist family sued Sabine Parish School Board for violating their right to religious freedom with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union. If the allegations are true, the district is engaging in astonishing levels of entanglement with religion in one of the most extreme violations of constitutional law in decades.
The lawsuit describes hallways with “[p]aintings of Jesus Christ, Bible verses, and Christian devotional phrases adorn the walls of many classrooms and hallways . . . A lighted, electronic marquee placed just outside the building scrolls Bible verses every day . . . . . . several posters urging students to “Pray,” “Worship,” and “Believe,” while a poster displayed near the waiting area of the main office announces that “[i]t’s okay to pray.”
The ACLU says that staff members “routinely lead students in Christian prayer” and teachers have been known to distribute religious literature like the bible readings contained in Truth for Youth” literature which denounce evolution, birth control and other evil influences in society. The lawsuit also alleges that Sabine Parish superintendent Sara Ebarb asked the family about whether they could “change” their boy’s religious beliefs and whether it might the better to enroll in a school some 25 miles down the road where “there are more Asians.”
The ACLU filing highlights the alleged conduct of social studies teacher and Defendant Rita
Roark also routinely requires students to provide written professions of faith on science exams and other tests and assignments. Verif. Compl. ¶ 30. The required religious professions have typically consisted of fill-in-the-blank Bible verses or religious affirmations as test questions. Id. On one occasion, the final question on an exam presented students with the following fill-in-the-blank question: “ISN’T IT AMAZING WHAT THE _____________ HAS MADE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Having been raised a Buddhist, C.C. did not know the expected answer and left the question blank. Id. ¶ 32. Roark marked it incorrect, wrote “LORD” in the blank in red ink, and returned the test to C.C. Id., Ex. A. She also scolded C.C., with the entire class listening, for not writing in the correct answer. Id. C.C.’s sister, who is also in Roark’s class, jumped to her brother’s defense, explaining that C.C. is a Buddhist and does not believe in God. Id. Roark returned to her desk, at which point a student remarked that “you’re stupid if you don’t believe in
God.” Roark looked up and shook her head “yes” in affirmation of the student’s remark. Id.
Roark is accused of making fun of the answer again in front of the class and agreeing with another student calling the failure to believe in God to be “stupid.”
The family alleges that when they complained about such incidents that they were told that they live “in the Bible Belt.”
The lawsuit gives other incredible details and returns to the conduct of Roark:
Roark continues to promote her religious beliefs to her students, including C.C.’s sister, during science class and at other times. Id. ¶ 43. In recent months, she has repeatedly instructed students that evolution is not valid as a scientific theory and that God made the world 6,000 years ago. Id. ¶ 44. She demands that students write either a Bible verse or “Isn’t it amazing what the Lord has made” at the bottom of exams if they want extra credit. Id. ¶ 45. Roark writes “Yes!” next to the verse or religious affirmation and awards students five additional points when they comply with this mandate. Id. In addition, in social studies class, Roark presents Biblical accounts of persons, places, and events as fact. Id. ¶ 46. For example, on a handout asking, “What mountain did Moses supposedly get the Ten Commandments from,” Roark crossed out the word “supposedly.” Id. She also has told students that the Bible is “100% true” and that “scientists are slowly finding out that everything in the Bible is accurate.” Id.
The school district has responded by “”The Sabine Parish School Board has only recently been made aware of the lawsuit filed by the ACLU. A lawsuit only represents one side’s allegations, and the board is disappointed that the ACLU chose to file suit without even contacting it regarding the facts.” That is pretty tepid. Given some of these allegations, I would have preferred an immediate statement saying “of course these are ridiculous allegations. We are not a school district in Bora Bora. Geez.”
If even a fraction of these allegations are true, the district is looking at major liability in this litigation. While the district says it would have liked more time, these are open and egregious violations. This may be “the Bible belt” as the parents were allegedly informed, but it is also part of the United States and subject to basic constitutional limitations under the First Amendment.
You can get the documents from the ACLU at this site.