ASHLAND CITY, Tenn. (ABP) Tennessee's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Nov. 16 accusing the Cheatham County Board of Education of ignoring more than four decades of court decisions interpreting the separation of church and state.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, claims board members and the principals of two schools for years have endorsed and promoted religion through extracurricular activities like marching band, choir and sports; classroom instruction and related content; and graduation ceremonies and other school events.
ACLU officials said they filed the lawsuit on behalf of two former students and the families of two current students only after six months of negotiations with the school district failed to produce any change in the policy. In fact, they said, it appears that school-sponsored religious activities have only increased during the current academic year.
"It is unfortunate that we had to go to court to protect religious freedom, but we had no other choice," said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of Tennessee ACLU. "This pattern and practice of school-sponsored religious activities in Cheatham County erodes the principle of religious freedom that is so central to our democracy."
The ACLU threatened to sue in May but backed down when the school district's attorney assured the organization that the 2009 graduation ceremony at Sycamore High School in Pleasant View, Tenn., would not include an unconstitutional school-sanctioned prayer. During the May 29 ceremony, however, the student-government president introduced what she described as a customary invocation led by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes' student of the year.
The plaintiffs say school officials since at least 2001 have used district-wide policy, practice and custom to promote their personal beliefs and to proselytize students in class and extracurricular activities.
Specific allegations include:
• A band instructor who was leading the marching band in practice for an upcoming football halftime performance when he stopped and called on a particular student to pray.
• A December 2007 concert where students sang Christmas and other seasonal songs and the choir director announced to the crowd words similar to, "We all know the reason we are here tonight, even if we are not allowed to say it."
• A band Christmas concert in 2008 where students were asked to read lyrics or introductions to Christmas songs before the band played them. One of the plaintiffs was selected to read a religious lyric but was reassigned a non-religious lyric after another student objected that it shouldn't be read by a non-Christian.
• Distribution of Gideon Bibles inside classrooms at Cheatham Middle School, in which students were instructed to line up to receive Bibles and to write their names in them.
• One high-school teacher displayed a foot-tall cross in his classroom next to a whiteboard used for student instruction. Another teacher required students to read and write about the biblical creation stories as an assignment for English class. A world history teacher introduced "intelligent design" as an acceptable alternative to evolution. An American history teacher read, in an angry tone, a handout emphasizing that the United States was founded as a "Christian nation" and criticizing the ACLU. None of those incidents, the lawsuit argues, were related to the general curriculum of the class or relevant to lessons being discussed that week.
Charles Haynes of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center said if the allegations are true, the school district in Cheatham County is "in clear violation" of the First Amendment.
"Apparently, Cheatham County school officials continue to promote religion in defiance of Supreme Court rulings handed down more than 40 years ago," Haynes said. "It is unfortunate that some public schools continue to trigger expensive and divisive lawsuits by continuing to promote religion."
Attorney Allen Woods, who represents the school board, told The Tennessean that all of Cheatham County's policies are in accordance with recommendations of the Tennessee School Board Association.
"The schools in question and all Cheatham County schools neither endorse any specific religion nor interfere with the religion of its students," Woods said. "That's what the Constitution requires."
Haynes advised the district to end the practices and settle the case. "There are many ways in which the district can protect student religious expression and appropriately teach about religion," he said. "But first the district has to make sure that teachers and staff stay neutral toward religion during the school day."
Americans United for Separation of Church and State recently published a new book about what role religion may and may not play in the classroom.
Religion in the Public Schools: A Road Map for Avoiding Lawsuits and Respecting Parents' Legal Rights is a 129-page volume designed for parents, students, teachers, school administrators, board members and anyone else with an interest in church-state law.
"Although public schools may not 'establish' religion by acting with religious purpose or effect, by entangling themselves with religion, or by endorsing religion, they also may not prohibit the free exercise of any particular student's religious beliefs or expression," author Anne Marie Lofaso, associate professor of law at West Virginia University College of Law, wrote in the book's preface. "The trick for many schools is how to permit religious liberty without endorsing religion."
The book sells for $14.95 on Amazon.com. It is also available as a free PDF download from the Americans United website.
Cheatham County is located 20 minutes west of metropolitan Nashville with northern and southern county lines extending to Interstates 24 and 40. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated the rapidly growing county's 2008 population at 39,396.