A school district in Louisiana has acknowledged that some of its customs and practices, including sponsoring morning prayer over the public address system, have violated the First Amendment.
The admission comes as part of a consent decree agreed upon by the district, Christy Cole and her daughter, Kaylee. The Coles sued in January after saying they'd had enough of what they called forced prayer in school. In their lawsuit, they alleged the Webster Parish School District engaged in a systematic, official promotion of religion.
The consent decree does not have any impact beyond Webster Parish, but ACLU lawyer Bruce Hamilton said it sets a precedent for how schools act with regards to prayer and religious proselytizing.
"This really is the wake-up calling and a warning shot to other school districts ... that they can't get away with it without violating the Constitution," said Hamilton, who worked with the Cole family on the lawsuit.
The lawsuit sparked deep reflection and frustration in Webster Parish. Faith is deeply personal, but it's also interwoven with everything in the town.
It's common to see a large cross in the front yard of a house. Seven churches dominate the two main roads in the town of Minden. A sign advertises a pest control business with a nod to a Bible verse: John 3:16. Sheriff's cruisers and ambulances proclaim, "In God We Trust."
When you ask residents if they can separate God from their daily lives, you get a resounding "No."
Which is why Christy Cole felt it was important to ensure her daughter, an agnostic, was not being forced into public prayer.
"For our family, religion is a deeply private matter, and school officials have no business interfering with my daughter's personal religious beliefs," Christy Cole said in response to the consent decree. "I don't want any student to have to go through what my daughter did, and I'm hopeful that because of this agreement, no student will."
Prayer over the loudspeaker each morning was just the beginning of an unconstitutional indoctrination of students promoted and supported by teachers, the principal, the superintendent and the school board, the Coles claimed in their lawsuit.
"Virtually all school events -- such as sports games, pep rallies, assemblies, and graduation ceremonies -- include school-sponsored Christian prayer, religious messages and/or proselytizing," read the lawsuit.
The school district acknowledged some of these actions in the consent decree, concurring they had violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which forbids governments from making laws "respecting an establishment of religion."
Among those policies and practices:
- "Incorporating official prayer into myriad school events,"
- "allowing staff and guest speakers to proselytize students during school events,"
- "subjecting students to religious iconography via displays in classroom and other locations,"
- "holding school events at religious facilities,"
- "using instruction materials, such as movies, that feature proselytizing and promotion of religion,"
- "and granting preferential treatment to the Fellow of Christian Athletes, a religious student club."
Hamilton praised the Coles for defending students' religious freedom, ensuring it is up to families, not bureaucrats, to decide when and how to pray.
"This is a victory for all students at Webster Parish School District, who now have the right to pray -- or not to pray -- free from interference or coercion from school officials," Hamilton said.
Webster Parish School District Superintendent Johnny Rowland told CNN, "We were glad that the matter has been resolved."
Rowland is pleased the courts "respected the rights of students to exercise their First Amendment right," which includes praying if they want, just without the daily use of the school loudspeaker system, he said.
Rowland believes the district has not "admitted any violations," he said, but instead showed it is "smart enough and honest enough" to admit that the way prayer was conducted, in some aspects, could be viewed as inappropriate.
"So the school board has pledged to be proactive," he said, adding that he feels the lawsuit brought the deeply religious community together. "There has been a surprisingly positive increase in the core beliefs of the parents and the churches in the community."
While the consent decree will change the school's official stance on prayer among students, Rowland said, he expects those with strong faith will still turn to God in the schools' hallways.
"As long as there's tests in schools, there will be prayer in school," he joked.
As part of the consent decree, the school district will be required to implement training to ensure compliance. Rowland expects that will be done in the two weeks leading up to the next school year, he said.