A lawsuit brought by a group of parents over religious activity in the Bossier Parish school system is headed toward a settlement if a federal judge signs off on an agreement by the two sides.
Both sides are claiming victory in the suit that said teachers overstepped the constitutional separation of church and state by pushing their religious beliefs.
Part of the preliminary agreement announced Tuesday calls for a slight revision to the School Board religious expression policy.
“We are currently awaiting the court’s action on the documents at this time, but Bossier Schools feels confident the revisions offered resolve most of the issues presented in the lawsuit and will be found agreeable by the Court,” school system spokeswoman Sonja Bailes said. “Since the beginning, it has been the Bossier Parish School Board’s resolve to stand united in an effort to preserve every student’s freedom of religious expression. This resolution does exactly that.”
Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed suit in U.S. District Court in Shreveport last year on behalf of eight unnamed families who said they were concerned their children faced religious coercion from school administrators, teachers and coaches in Bossier Parish. Four families dropped out of the lawsuit when their children were no longer in school.
The suit alleged multiple religious freedom violations had occurred, including school events being held at churches or involving prayers as part of the official program, extensive promotion of religion within school athletic programs, teachers proselytizing in classrooms and religious displays in classrooms and offices.
School system officials fought the allegations.
Last week, the School Board approved a revised religious expression policy and agreed to a settlement of the suit.
Americans United said provisions of the settlement include:
- Creation of a monitoring committee to review and resolve potential violations or disputes involving religious freedom.
- An agreement by the School Board to create, expand or seek out appropriate facilities to minimize the need to hold school events in places of worship.
- A commitment to protecting the rights of all Bossier students to pray in school, as long as the prayers are initiated by students, aren’t disruptive and don’t occur during class time.
- Permission for Bossier teachers to teach about religion in an objective manner, but not proselytize students.
The School Board said the agreement also includes the following:
- Students maintain the right to pray at school and at school events.
- Students will be allowed to speak about religion at school events.
- Does not penalize school employees who bow their heads when prayers are offered.
- Allows teachers to teach about religion in an objective manner.
- Allows student clubs of all kinds, including Fellowship of Christian Athletes, to continue to organize, meet and be active on campus.
- Allows students to express their own ideas verbally and to distribute literature.
- Allows employees to wear items of jewelry that include symbols associated with religion
“This historic settlement is a victory for all Bossier families and will ensure that children feel welcome and included in their own schools, regardless of what religion they do or don’t practice at home,” Rachel Laser, president of Americans United, said in a statement. “Bossier Parish allowed religious coercion to proliferate throughout their schools – that system will no longer exist and rigorous protections that are enforceable by law have been put in place for all students. We are thrilled that Bossier Parish Schools are now fulfilling the promise of religious freedom for all of their students.”
School system Superintendent Scott Smith also expressed satisfaction with the settlement.
"The settlement allows for the closure of this case without the loss of any student rights, which is of utmost importance to the Board,” Smith said.