Teaching and promoting religion at school has always been a long-time debate. When a school district in Tennessee got sued by atheists, they decided to agree that the public school systems should stop promoting Christianity.
They were accused of promoting Christianity through a ‘religiously hostile’ environment by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of the students and their families. Just last year, the ACLU sued the district on behalf of two families and three high school students and another middle-school pupil.
The plaintiffs include Kelly Butler, a U.S. Army veteran and father of children who are attending the Smith County schools, as well as Jason and Sharona Carr and their children who attend the same Smith County school.
Butler said, “I’m relieved the school district recognized that its widespread promotion of religion was unconstitutional. My children, and all children, deserve an education that is free from the type of religious coercion that our family has suffered.”
Harleigh is one of the students involved. Describing her experience at school, she said, “Overall, it’s really uncomfortable. You feel like you don’t fit in at all. I feel like it’s almost like it’s coercing everybody to be the same. I feel uncomfortable because I feel like I’m the only one sitting there not participating.”
According to the Smith County Board of Education, they admit that incorporating official prayer during school events subject students to display religious iconography in the classrooms. This also includes the distribution of Bibles to their 5th-grade students by the evangelical Christian association. The daily reading of Bible Verses before the classes start or displaying a cross with the words “In God We Trust” should also be stopped.
A decree filed in the Nashville federal court described the school districts’ actions saying that promoting religion is a violation of the First Amendment.
Heather Weather, the senior staff attorney for the ACLU Program of Freedom of Religion and Belief released a statement saying: “the court’s order comes in the form of a consent decree, meaning the school district—to its credit—recognized that these practices are legally indefensible and agreed to an injunction. These practices created a religiously hostile school environment, alienating minority-faith students and non-believers, including our clients.”
She added, “As atheists bombarded with religious messages and forced prayer, our clients felt unwelcome and deeply uncomfortable at school. But school officials didn’t care in the slightest and rebuffed our clients when they tried to express their concerns. Religious equality for all students in America’s public schools remains elusive. Victories like today’s mark an important milestone in this fight, but there is still much more work to be done.”
“Every student, regardless of their faith, should be able to access public education without discrimination and religious influence by school officials,” Weather explains.
Everyone is hoping that this ruling will be able to make way for a more inclusive and tolerant school in the Smith County community. Hopefully, this is the one that would respect the rights of the students for them to have freedom when it comes to their religious and non-religious beliefs. And those who joined this protest are hopeful that the Supreme Courts would be able to continue to protect the importance of this right with the separation of church and state cases that are winning these days.