High school student sues Louisiana officials over prayer policy

Tuesday, December 7, 1999

A Louisiana high school student and his mother are accusing public school
officials of unlawfully permitting Christian practices to take place during
school hours.

In a federal lawsuit filed late last week against the Ouachita Parish School
Board, West Monroe High School and the Louisiana governor, a ninth-grader and
his mother say a newly amended state law that permits prayer and meditation has
also opened the door to school-sponsored religious activities. The mother and
her son, who attends West Monroe High, are referred to as Jane and David Doe in
the lawsuit.

Last July, a state law was amended to allow all public school students “to
observe a brief time in prayer or meditation.” Before the change, the law had
authorized “silent prayer or meditation.” The American Civil Liberties Union of
Louisiana and the nonprofit group Americans United for Separation of Church and
State argue on behalf of the ninth-grader that the amended law violates the
First Amendment's establishment clause and that religious activities at the high
school are improperly led and encouraged by school officials.

According to the groups' nine-page complaint, a student, usually a member of
the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, gives a “Christian prayer” over the
intercom each morning after the principal makes announcements. The complaint
also states that during October students formed a prayer circle after a
sixth-period honors science class, at which the ninth-grader and one other
student refused to participate.

Last month, Americans United sent a letter to Principal Ernest Reed stating
its concerns about the use of the public-address system and the science class
for organized prayer. Reed has yet to respond to Americans United.

“The prayer activities taking place at West Monroe High School, and the
authorization of certain of those activities by the recent amendments to [the
Louisiana prayer law], constitute unlawful advancement and endorsement of
religion that cause harm to David Doe by making him feel unwelcome at school,
and placing coercive pressure on him to conform to others' religious beliefs,”
the complaint states. According to the ACLU and Americans United, David Doe had
been called by his peers an “atheist, satanist and devil worshiper” in apparent
derision for his refusal to participate in Christian worship.

The suit seeks a court declaration that the recently amended Louisiana prayer
law is unconstitutional, as well as an injunction against West Monroe High
School's practice of prayer over the intercom and prayer circles.

Citing federal court decisions from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals,
the two civil rights groups say that prayer is a “quintessential religious
practice,” and “the fact that it is given by students over the intercom to their
fellow students is irrelevant for constitutional purposes.” According to the
groups such “prayer is facilitated and encouraged by school officials, delivered
over state-owned machinery, and conducted to captive student audiences during
first period class.”

“No child should be made to feel like an outsider or a second-class citizen
in a public school because of his or her religious or philosophical beliefs,”
Joe Cook, director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said in a written statement “Religious instruction belongs in homes and churches, not in
a classroom where young people of many faiths gather.”

Rob Boston, assistant communications director for Americans United, said that the Louisiana law had created an opportunity for school
boards to authorize “daily prayer in the public schools” that should be found
“blatantly unconstitutional” by the district court.

Calls placed to Lanny Johnson, superintendent of
Ouachita Parish Schools, were not returned.