VICTORY IN DOSSIER! Americans United Secures Agreement To Protect Students' Religious Freedom In Louisiana School District.

AuthorHayes, Liz

Americans United declared victory in its federal lawsuit against Bossier Parish School Board in northwest Louisiana upon reaching a settlement agreement in late January that protects the religious freedom of the public school district's 23,000 schoolchildren.

"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," said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. "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."

A joint consent decree between the Bossier Parish School Board and the Bossier parents represented by Americans United was filed with the U.S. District Court for Western Louisiana on Jan. 22; its approval by the court was pending at Church & State's press time.

In the decree, the school board acknowledged that some of the districts' actions and policies violated the Constitution because they "(a) endorse and promote religion, (b) have the purpose or effect of advancing religion, and/or (c) coerce religious exercise either directly or indirectly. "

As part of the settlement, the school board a week earlier had unanimously agreed to revise its "religious expression" policy to better protect students' rights. Noteworthy terms of the settlement agreement and policy include:

* The creation of a monitoring committee to review and resolve potential violations or disputes involving religious freedom--a novel solution not commonly used before to address church-state separation complaints. Americans United and the district superintendent will each select two members of the four-member committee, which answers to the court, not the school board.

* The district will "make best efforts" to create, expand or seek out appropriate facilities to minimize the need to hold school events in houses 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. School staff can't lead or participate in student-led prayers, nor can the district promote or sponsor religious student clubs or activities.

The consent decree--including the monitoring committee--would be in effect at least until August 2031.

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