Public Schools, Not Sunday Schools? ACLU Files Lawsuit

Schools in Tennessee are threatening religious liberty for all students, claimed the ACLU, in a lawsuit filed on Monday.

“In an effort to stem the widespread, unconstitutional pattern and practice of religious activities,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee is taking legal action, charging the Sumner County school system for “excessive religious entanglement.”

Filed on behalf of nine students from four families, the ACLU released a statement concerning the lawsuit, alleging that the pattern and practice of the promotion and endorsement of religious activity dates back as early as 2006.

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Examples of these activities include: the distribution of Bibles into schools by Gideon’s International; invocations at school board meetings; prayer over the speakers; teacher endorsement of religion; graduation ceremonies and other school events held at churches; and youth ministers proselytizing on campus.

“Public schools should seek to create an environment conducive to learning by all students and not act as vehicles proselytizing for religious or anti-religious beliefs,” said ACLU-TN Legal Director Tricia Herzfeld in a statement.

“Religious discussions belong in the realm of families and faith communities, not government bodies such as the local schools. They are, in fact, public schools and not Sunday schools.”

A local conservative pastor commented on the purported violation of the Establishment Clause – which states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” – remarking that citizens have “freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.”

“For over a hundred years, the Bible was the foundation of every school ... and what’s happened [over the years] is that people have reinterpreted history,” the Madison, Tenn., pastor, whose name was withheld because of pending litigation, told The Christian Post. “The term separation of church and state was [coined] in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to Danbury Baptists.”

“In the process of that [letter], he said there is a wall of separation between church and state. It’s not to keep the church out of the state but to keep the state out of the church. It’s a one-way law.”

Not endorsing churches to break any laws, he hoped that judges would seek to right the law and not interpret it.

He also encouraged the church to be a “support agent” and a continual resource in whatever way – financial or not – to local schools, which were lacking much needed care from the government.

Since December 2010, the ACLU-TN notified the school district of the numerous complaints the organization had received from Sumner County school parents detailing the violations of the Establishment Clause in Sumner County Schools.

But the ACLU claimed that the board had failed to investigate into the “constitutional violations,” though they had met 13 times between the time of the notification and the resultant lawsuit now.

“In the face of concrete and undeniable practices, the school board has instead stood by and remained deliberately indifferent to the constitutional violations.”

“The pattern and practice of school-sponsored religious activities in Sumner County is so egregious that we had no choice but to file this lawsuit,” ACLU-TN Executive Director Hedy Weinberg expressed.

In response to the lawsuit, which he believed actually opposed the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion, the local pastor relayed, “The ACLU are intimidators, and their goal is to intimidate and manipulate society to where we have freedom from religion.”

“They don’t have a right to be limiting,” he shared.

Commenting on what seemed like a never-ending battle between the church and state, the Madison pastor believes that the fight will continue to rage, and most likely more heatedly in the coming years.

“Ultimately, those people who oppose God will be defeated. When, where and how, I don’t know. But God always wins.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee v. The Sumner County Board of Education lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee.

Beech High School, T.W. Hunter Middle School, Robert E. Ellis Middle School, Madison Creek Elementary School and Indian Lake Elementary School are the five schools named in the complaint.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are asking for a temporary restraining order, a preliminary and permanent injunction, an order from the court declaring aforementioned practices unconstitutional, preventing them from reoccurring in the future, and nominal damages.

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