Attorneys backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee have filed suit in federal court against the Cheatham County Board of Education for its alleged unconstitutional pattern and practice of religious activities.
Filed on behalf of two former students and parents of two current students, the suit contends employees at Sycamore High School and Cheatham Middle School violated the constitution’s First Amendment through sponsoring a series of religious activities dating back as early as 2001. Lawyers are seeking injunctive relief.
Accusations include the distribution of the Gideon’s Bibles in classrooms, teacher-endorsed prayer before football games and school-sponsored prayer at graduation ceremonies. All four plaintiffs are protected by anonymity.
“There seems to be a growing habit among public school systems in Middle Tennessee to sort of flout the First Amendment right of freedom of religion,” said veteran civil rights attorney George Barrett.
“We’d be happy to talk to the school board and talk about some reasonable rules and regulations to prevent this,” he said. “We’re not interested in embarrassing anybody.”
Allen Woods, who’s law firm is providing counsel to the Cheatham County school board, said all board actions have been in compliance with the recommendations of the Tennessee School Board Association, as well as state and federal law.
“No policy or action taken by any Cheatham County school either endorsed a specific religion or interfered with the free exercise of religion by any of the students of the public schools,” Woods said.
Diane Williams, the district’s interim director schools, could not be reached for comment.
Barrett said the school system’s “most egregious” religious-sponsored incident came when promoters of Gideons International, a Protestant evangelical organization, took class time to pass out their versions of the Bible to students.
Cheatham County school leaders have also continually used prayer during school functions, he said, including at a recent graduation despite assurance from the school’s legal counsel that prayer would be removed from the ceremony.
“We approached the schools and conferred with counsel from the school board,” Barrett said. “He assured us it would not take place this school year.
“I think we’ll get their attention now,” Barrett said of the suit.
Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, said the plaintiffs originally contacted the school system on their own and sought help when “they were just to the point when their voices weren’t being heard.
“Our mission is to protect and promote religious freedom for all Tennesseans,” Weinberg said. “And sometimes we have to actually go into court to do that.”
The suit comes on the heels of a similar case filed three year ago against Wilson County Schools in which a federal judge in 2008 ruled the district illegally promoted religion before ruling over the summer the district can’t ban religious phrases from posters.