Tenn. school’s ‘Praying Parents’ prompts lawsuit

Thursday, November 16, 2006

A group of parents that gathers regularly in the cafeteria of a Tennessee elementary school to pray for the institution and its students and faculty recently got an unexpected response to their petitions — a lawsuit.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee filed the suit, alleging that officials at Lakeview Elementary School in Mt. Juliet violated the First Amendment by promoting the group, Praying Parents, as well as other religious-themed activities.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit on Sept. 27 in U.S. District Court on behalf of John and Jane Doe, parents of James Doe, who attended kindergarten at Lakeview during the 2005-2006 school year. The plaintiffs withdrew their son from Lakeview and are home-schooling him during the current school year, the lawsuit states, “[b]ecause of [school officials’] intent to continue unconstitutional actions and the Plaintiffs(’) fear that their child is being subject to religious proselytizing.”

The defendants include the Wilson County School System, two Lakeview administrators and a Lakeview teacher.

“It is unfortunate that we had to go to court to protect religious freedom but we had no other choice. We are pursuing this lawsuit so that Wilson County residents can decide for themselves whether or not they want to practice a particular religious faith,” said ACLU of Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg in a news release.

The Alliance Defense Fund acknowledged that it would defend the Wilson County School System, but did not respond to queries for comment.

The Praying Parents group meets the first Friday of every month during the school day in the Lakeview cafeteria. Information about the group appears on the school’s Web site, which says, “‘Praying Parents’ is a group of Lakeview parents who meet once a month to pray for our school, faculty, staff, and children. … Praying Parents is not affiliated with any organization, nor do we promote a political agenda. We’re just a group of parents who want to make an investment in our children’s school through prayer.”

According to the lawsuit, a Praying Parent visited James Doe’s classroom and gave cards to the students telling them the parents had prayed for them. Praying Parent flyers were also given to the students to take home to their parents.

The Does also claim two events that took place at the school violate the establishment clause: a “See You at the Pole” prayer on Sept. 5, 2005, and a “National Day of Prayer” event on May 4, 2006. Signs for both events were posted throughout the school, which sponsored a poster design contest for the May event. Lakeview’s principal, defendant Wendell Marlowe, and assistant principal, defendant Yvonne Smith, attended the September event. Both events took place before school; however, the first occurred in front of the building, causing other students and parents to hear prayers, worship and Bible readings.

The lawsuit also alleges that Lakeview’s Christmas program on Dec. 8, 2005, violated the First Amendment. The Does had been told the program would be secular, but it concluded with a role-play of the Nativity scene, and members of the audience were given the words to the songs “Away in a Manger” and “Joy to the World” and asked to sing. No other religious celebrations were mentioned during the program.

The final alleged violation concerns classroom prayer, which the Does claim occurred in their son’s kindergarten class. At the end of the school year, the family was given a DVD that, among other things, showed students dressed as Native Americans. A voice prompts them to start singing, “Thank you God for the world so sweet … .” The DVD also shows defendant Janet Adamson, James Doe’s teacher, leading the students in singing another prayer.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit seeking a preliminary injunction to stop all of the alleged unconstitutional actions. The suit asks that the actions be declared unconstitutional, for a permanent injunction and for nominal damages and attorney’s fees for the Does.

First Amendment Center Senior Scholar Charles Haynes said, “Although Wilson County officials claim they are defending the rights of students, they are actually being accused of promoting religion in the public schools. When public school administrators get involved in sponsoring religious activities, they violate the religious freedom of all students and parents.”

After the lawsuit was filed, residents of Wilson County rapidly became polarized over the issue. Two Mt. Juliet commissioners orchestrated a prayer rally Oct. 24 hoping to send the message that God should be allowed in public schools. Hundreds showed up in support of Lakeview, while only two were on hand to defend the ACLU’s actions.

The Mt. Juliet city commission unanimously passed a resolution encouraging the school system to fight the lawsuit in early October.

This is not the first time an educational institution has been sued for an alleged violation of the establishment clause, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Those 16 words opened a passionate debate in the United States when they were enshrined in the Bill of Rights. The situation in Wilson County echoes conflicts that have engaged the judicial system for decades. The ACLU draws upon several judicial precedents in its attempt to halt alleged endorsement of religion at Lakeview Elementary School.

In its 1948 decision in McCollum v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a lower court decision that allowed an Illinois school district to have voluntary religious instruction during the school day. Students were allowed to leave their classes and attend religious classes taught by local clergy, while students not opting to attend continued their secular education. Justice Hugo Black penned the Court’s opinion, which stated, “Neither a state nor the federal government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups, and vice versa.”

In 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that an Alabama statute that authorized a minute of meditation or voluntary prayer violated the establishment clause. The opinion in Wallace v. Jaffree, authored by Justice John Paul Stevens, said, “This conclusion derives support not only from the interest in respecting the individual's freedom of conscience, but also from the conviction that religious beliefs worthy of respect are the product of free and voluntary choice by the faithful.”

The Supreme Court evaluated School District of Grand Rapids v. Ball in 1985, in which a group of taxpayers sued the district for leasing classrooms from nonpublic, religious schools. The Court ruled that this violated the establishment clause and said, “For just as religion throughout history has provided spiritual comfort, guidance, and inspiration to many, it can also serve powerfully to divide societies … . The solution to this problem adopted by the Framers and consistently recognized by this Court is jealously to guard the right of every individual to worship according to the dictates of conscience, while requiring the government to maintain a course of neutrality among religions, and between religion and nonreligion.”

In 1992, the Court established precedent for school prayer by ruling in Lee v. Weisman that a Rhode Island middle school had unconstitutionally invited clergy to pray at its graduation ceremonies. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the Court’s opinion, “The principle that government may accommodate the free exercise of religion does not supersede the fundamental limitation imposed by the Establishment Clause. It is beyond dispute that, at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise.”

Melanie Bengtson is an intern at the First Amendment Center and a sophomore studying developmental politics at Belmont University.

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