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High School Students Sue School District over Forced Christian Prayer

December 4th, 2019

The Huntington Beach City School District agreed to revise its religious expression policy addressing the dissemination of religious materials on campus.
A Tennessee school district is being sued for promoting religion, including forced Christian prayer, thereby violating the separation of church and state.

Four atheist public school students in Tennessee recently initiated a lawsuit against their school district for violating the separation of church and state. According to the students, school officials have been promoting Christian religious activities in their public schools, including prayers, Bible distributions, posters and other activities. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit was filed on November 18th, and it seeks a preliminary injunction to stop these practices.

The Facts of the Case

In the lawsuit, the ACLU lays out the complaint, which includes:

  • Official Christian prayer incorporated into various school events including assemblies, athletic games and graduation.
  • School officials inviting the Gideons into fifth-grade classrooms to distribute Bibles.
  • Teachers saying students would be better off “if they had Jesus in their life.”
  • School officials posting religious quotations and symbols.
  • Coaches praying with students before practices and games.

The lawsuit contends these practices violate the constitutionally-mandated separation of church and state.

The Plaintiffs in the Case

Four atheist students and their parents brought the case. The students feel very uncomfortable and awkward attending these schools, and mostly like they don’t fit in due to their different beliefs. They feel everyone should be able to express their religion but that atheists should not feel ostracized and made to feel like second class citizens. The school, in their mind, is coercing everyone to think the same way and fall in line with the Christian messaging.

The students were also told in middle school that it was not ok to discuss LGBTQ issues or engage in same-sex relationships. Ultimately, they just want to feel welcome at their schools and have their beliefs respected.

Prior Case Law on Religion in Public Schools

In 1963, the United States Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in Abington Township v. Schempp that daily Bible reading and prayer in public schools were unconstitutional. The Court, however, also ruled that religion was permitted in the curriculum of public schools. For example, if a public school offers a course on the Bible, this material would be appropriate for a literature rather than devotional study. 

To remain constitutional, teachers must teach about religion rather than any type of indoctrination. Schools that want to teach religion in a constitutional manner must obey the following guidelines:

  • The school’s approach should be academic rather than devotional in nature.
  • Schools should aim for student awareness rather than religious acceptance.
  • Schools offer a variety of religious perspectives rather than one particular view.
  • Schools should seek to educate students about religion without conformity.

Continue Reading the Universal Life Church’s Blog

While the separation of church and state is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, each year there are a number of cases that test the exact boundaries of this separation. The Universal Life Church’s blog is dedicated to describing the most noteworthy of these cases, so keep reading it to stay informed.

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