An elementary school in Tennessee has been accused of censoring references to God from posters promoting an annual prayer event led by students.
A lawsuit filed Tuesday alleges that officials at Lakeview Elementary School in Tennessee last year ordered "God Bless the USA," "In God We Trust," and other phrases referencing prayer to be covered up. The words were printed on posters inviting students to See You at the Pole (SYATP), a nationwide prayer event held annually on the fourth Wednesday of September.
The suit, brought by five Wilson County couples on behalf of their children, who are students at Lakeview, charges Wilson County School Board and school officials with violating their First Amendment right to free speech and Fourth Amendment right to be treated equally under the law.
"Christian students shouldn't be censored for expressing their beliefs," said Nate Kellum, senior counsel Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian-based legal group representing the parents.
"It's ridiculous as well as unconstitutional to cover up these references to God and prayer-one of which is the National Motto itself-on posters announcing a student-led activity."
The legal challenge comes a little over a year after Lakeview Elementary School wrapped up a case that charged the school with promoting Christianity.
In September 2006, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit blasting the school for allowing Praying Parents to leave "you've been prayed for" cards for teachers and students and organizing religious activities on school grounds. Plaintiffs in the case claimed they withdrew their child from the school and homeschooled him to protect their child from Christian proselytizing.
Praying Parents, represented by ADF, intervened in the suit, claiming the plaintiffs were violating their religious freedom rights.
A federal judge ruled in May 2008 that Christian activities, such as Christmas programs, See You at the Pole, and the National Day of Prayer, were permitted at the school.
Several parents in the current censorship case are members of Praying Parents.
Each year, students and parents affiliated with Lakeview Elementary School put up posters in the hallways of the school informing students of SYATP.
Although the poster for the September 2008 SYATP included the disclaimer, "See You at the Pole is a student-initiated and student-led event and is not endorsed by Lakeview Elementary or Wilson County schools," school officials ordered references to "God" be covered up, citing school board policy.
Green paper was supplied by the school to cover up other religious references. One poster that read "come and pray" was altered to just read "come." The SYATP Bible theme verse from 1 Samuel 3:9, "Speak, for your servant is listening," was covered on another poster.
"School officials appear to be having an allergic reaction to the ACLU's long-term record of fear, intimidation, and disinformation, despite a previous court ruling at this very school that said students can observe these types of events on school property," observed Kellum.
The parents, who plan to help their children with future prayer events, are asking the court to uphold their constitutional rights.
One student wants to re-use the phrase "In God We Trust" to promote this year's National Day of Prayer in May. Another wishes to display Bible verses associated with SYATP and NDP in the posters.
The families "are chilled and deterred from ever displaying these types of phrases on a poster at Lakeview because of the policy in place, and their fear of censorship, reprisal, and reprimand," the suit states.
"The Constitution prohibits government officials from singling out religious speech for censorship," asserted Kellum.