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ACLU Sues TN School District Over Official Prayers

Atheist students in one Tennessee public school district were told they would be better off "if they had Jesus in their life," according to lawsuit documents from Tennessee ACLU. (Adobe Stock)
Atheist students in one Tennessee public school district were told they would be better off "if they had Jesus in their life," according to lawsuit documents from Tennessee ACLU. (Adobe Stock)
November 21, 2019

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a freedom of religion lawsuit on behalf of parents whose children attend Smith County public schools.

The lawsuit alleges that school officials and teachers consistently incorporated Christian prayer into school events.

Thomas Castelli, legal director of the ACLU of Tennessee, says if students choose to pray in school, that's protected by the Constitution. The issue, he says, is when prayer or promotion of a single religion is mandated or encouraged by school authorities.

"The teachers were basically proselytizing to students by giving them individual Bible verses or by suggesting that they needed to turn their life over to Christ – things like that that would be considered proselytizing to students that would be considered inappropriate," he states.

Castelli says the ACLU also will be filing a motion for a preliminary injunction asking Smith County school officials to stop the religious behavior while the court makes a decision.

The Smith County School district maintains that it provides a welcoming environment for all students.

The two families that are plaintiffs in the case allege that school officials have allowed the distribution and display of Bibles during classes. The families also say Bible verses are posted in hallways, prayers are broadcast through loudspeakers at school sporting events, and a large cross is painted on the wall of a school athletic facility.

Castelli says this type of religious promotion had been occurring for several years.

"So this isn't again, when something happened last week and we're filing a lawsuit,” he explains. “This is really about just something that's been going on for quite awhile that these parents and these children have been experiencing."

Castelli points out that decisions about whether and how to practice religion should be left to families and faith communities, not the public school system.

"So I understand that a lot of people might look at this and say, 'This is just our culture, this is just the way things are,'” he allows. “But I think the importance of the Constitution is that it protects everyone. "

Four high school students in the case say they are atheists.

Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service - TN