Atheists, others say they stand ready to take legal action over - KSLA News 12 Shreveport, Louisiana News Weather & Sports

Atheists, others say they stand ready to take legal action over BPSB national anthem policy

(Source: KSLA News 12) (Source: KSLA News 12)
(Source: KSLA News 12) (Source: KSLA News 12)
(Source: KSLA News 12) (Source: KSLA News 12)
BOSSIER PARISH, LA (KSLA) -

The controversy over student athletes kneeling during the national anthem again is at the forefront in Bossier Parish.

American Atheists and representatives of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the Center for Inquiry, the American Humanist Association, the Secular Student Alliance and the Secular Coalition for America wrote a letter to the Bossier schools superintendent.

The missive asks the School District to remove any policies keeping students from protesting during the national anthem.

The letter also urges Bossier public schools to stop prayers before sporting events.

An American Atheists spokesman said someone from the community asked the organization to get involved.

"We have supporters all over the country, including in Bossier Parish, who are concerned about these issues. Atheists in your community who these policies exclude," said Nick Fish, national program director for American Atheists.

"So praying before football games in public schools and jeopardizing the free speech rights of students, this is something that touches very closely to people already in your community."

The groups' letter to Bossier schools Superintendent Scott Smith is in response to a letter he sent to students' parents, Fish said.

The Bossier School Board gained attention in September when Smith's letter caught the attention of various national publications.

In sharing the statement, Bossier School District spokeswoman Sonja Bailes said: "Bossier Schools is proud to be part of a parish where the vast majority of our citizens are proud to live in a patriotic community that supports its military and shows reverence when our national anthem is played at sporting events and other times."

Following is Smith's statement:

Freedom is not free. Each day the men and women at Barksdale Air Force Base and in other branches of the military in Bossier Parish and throughout the nation don a uniform and put their lives at risk as they proudly serve and protect us with honor. The least Bossier Schools can do is expect our student athletes to stand in solidarity when the National Anthem is played at sporting events in honor of those sacrifices.  

In Bossier Parish, we believe when a student chooses to join and participate on a team, the players and coaches should stand when our National Anthem is played in a show of respect. This extends to those that elect to join a club or student organization, which requires a faculty sponsor. It is a choice for students to participate in extracurricular activities, not a right, and we at Bossier Schools feel strongly that our teams and organizations should stand in unity to honor our nation’s military and veterans.

This district directive was derived after seeking input from all Bossier Parish middle and high school principals in light of the national conversation currently taking place. Our principals and their coaching staffs have sole discretion in determining consequences should a student athlete elect not to stand during the National Anthem and they are making their expectations known to players and their families this week. As Superintendent, my administration will be in full support of these school-based decisions. 

Our district stance is reflective of the values held not only at Bossier Schools, but throughout our great parish. The vast majority of our citizens are proud to live in a patriotic community that supports its military and shows deep respect and reverence toward our active duty military and veterans. 

It is an honor for Bossier Schools to pay homage to the American flag and stand during the National Anthem. May we never take that for granted. 

- Scott Smith
Superintendent of Bossier Schools

The groups' response to Smith cites a U.S. Supreme Court decision upheld in 2000 that says religious activities done during high school games violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court has been clear that religious activities, like this, a public prayer delivered on at a high school football game, using publicly owned equipment, constitute an endorsement of religion which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. See Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000).  

As the Court made clear, even student-led prayer in such a forum was unconstitutional. As the Court noted: 
In this context the members of the listening audience must perceive the pregame message as a public expression of the views of the majority of the student body delivered with the approval of the school administration. Id. at 308. 

The groups' missive also mentions a ruling that retaliation against a private individual for exercising their constitutional rights is unconstitutional.

Retaliation against a private individual for the exercise of their constitutional rights itself amounts to a violation that exposes teachers and administrators to personal liability. Morgan v. Swanson, 755 F.3d 757, 760 (5th Cir. 2014). 

Fish said the groups are prepared to take legal action if necessary. 

"It has to do with a very clearly designed constitutional right that the court has already ruled on," he explained. "When we send these letters, it's because we mean business.

"We obviously don't ever want to go to litigation; we don't want to have to file lawsuits," he continued. "But we don't send letters lightly. We don't engage on these issues unless we are willing to take it all the way.

"The superintendent needs to know what his obligations are under the Constitution and that we and the five other organizations who have signed this letter are willing to take it all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary to enforce and protect students' rights."

Smith responded to the groups' letter by stating:

"The letter from the American Atheists and its co-signers has been forwarded to our attorneys for review. However, until we are instructed by a higher authority to reverse our district's stance, we stand firm. A letter from groups whose goal is to establish a secular society void of traditional values does not come close to reflecting the ideals held in Bossier Parish and will not affect our stance whatsoever." 

Below is the full letter authored by American Atheists and its co-signers:

Bossier School District policy on the flag, pledge of allegiance and national anthem:

FLAG DISPLAY

All public schools under the jurisdiction of the Bossier Parish School Board shall fly the American flag and the Louisiana state flag every school day.

PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE

At the beginning of each school day, the Bossier Parish School Board shall require time be permitted for those students and teachers desiring to do so to observe a brief time in silent meditation (not intended or identified as a religious exercise), which shall not exceed five (5) minutes, and for reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag.

Every assembly or meeting in each school should begin with the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag and with the playing or the singing of the National Anthem, and all students shall be encouraged to learn the words of the National Anthem.  Throughout the playing (singing) of the National Anthem and/or the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, students shall be encouraged to exhibit respectful behavior.

Revised:  August 4, 2016
Ref:  La. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§17:81, 17:416, 17:2115, 49:153
Board minutes, 8-4-16
Bossier Parish School Board

Bossier School District policy on prayer:

PRAYER IN SCHOOLS

The Bossier Parish School Board shall permit school authorities of each school to allow an opportunity, at the start of each school day, for those students and teachers desiring to do so to observe a brief time in silent prayer or meditation.

Public schools shall be prohibited from adopting or using any official or standard prayer. Voluntary, student-initiated, student-led prayer in accordance with the religious views of the student offering the prayer may be permitted; however, no student attending the school shall be required to participate in any religious activity at school.

No law, rule or policy shall deny to any student attending a public elementary or secondary school the right to participate in voluntary, student-initiated, student-led prayer during school or on school property, before or after school or during free time.  Athletic teams shall not be prohibited from engaging in voluntary, student-initiated, student-led prayer.

No law, rule or policy shall prevent any student who attends a public elementary or secondary school and who is responsible for or presiding over a meeting of a school organization or assembly from calling upon a student volunteer to offer an inspirational quotation or statement, offer a voluntary prayer, or lead in silent meditation, at the sole option of the student volunteer.

A student organization shall not be denied recognition or any privilege or benefit solely because it is religious in nature, has a religious affiliation, or has no religious affiliation.

School officials shall be prohibited from censoring for religious content the speech of a high school student invited to speak at a commencement ceremony at the school he/she is attending.

When student volunteers are called upon to offer an inspirational quotation or statement, offer a prayer, or lead in silent meditation, such students shall be selected at random by a student from among student volunteers without respect to their individual religious beliefs or lack thereof.  No student shall be called upon to offer an inspirational quotation or statement, offer a voluntary prayer, or lead in silent meditation unless the student has volunteered to do so.

STUDENT-INITIATED PRAYER

Upon the request of any public school student or students, the principal or his/her designee may permit students to gather for prayer in a classroom, auditorium, or other space that is not in use, at any time before the school day begins when the school is open and students are allowed on campus, at any time after the school day ends provided that at least one student club or organization is meeting at that time, or at any non-instructional time during the school day.  A school employee may be assigned to supervise the gathering if such supervision is also requested by the student or students and the school employee volunteers to supervise the gathering.

Any school employee may attend and participate in the gathering if it occurs before the employee's work day begins or after the employee's work day ends.

Any parent may attend the gathering if the parent adheres to school procedures for approval of visitors on the school campus.

The students may invite persons from the community to attend and participate in the gathering if other school organizations and clubs are allowed to make similar invitations. Such persons shall adhere to school procedures for approval of visitors on the school campus.

Revised:  October 3, 2013
Ref:     La. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§17:2115, 17:2115.1, 17:2115.2, 17:2115.3, 17:2115.4, 17:2115.5, 17:2115.6, 17:2115.7, 17:2115.8, 17:2115.9,17:2115.10, 17:2115.11
Board minutes, 10-3-13
Bossier Parish School Board

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