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Friday, February 23, 2024 | Back issues
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A Textbook Case on the Establishment Clause

SHREVEPORT, La. (CN) - A Louisiana public school repeatedly humiliated a Buddhist sixth-grader, teaches that "evolution is a 'stupid' theory that 'stupid people made up because they don't want to believe in God,'" and scolded the boy for failing to answer correctly a test question: "Isn't it amazing what the ­­­­_____ [Lord] has made!!!!!!!!," the child and his parents claim in court.

Scott and Sharon Lane sued the Sabine Parish School Board on their own behalf and for their three children, in Federal Court. They also sued school Superintendent Sara Ebarb, Negreet High School principal Gene Wright and Negreet H.S. teacher Rita Roark.

Sharon Lane's child, C.C., a Buddhist of Thai descent, enrolled in the sixth grade of Negreet High School in August 2013.

He quickly became a target of "proselytizing and harassment" by his teacher Rita Roark, the family says in the 20-page lawsuit.

Roark "even ridiculed C.C. in class for his non-Christian beliefs and has told her students that his faith, Buddhism, is 'stupid,'" according to the complaint.

The lawsuit's allegations read like a textbook example of Establishment Clause violations. According to the Lanes, the school and district "have a longstanding custom, policy, and practice of promoting and inculcating Christian beliefs by sponsoring religious activities, as well as conveying religious messages to students. For example, at Negreet, which serves students in kindergarten through twelfth grade, teachers ask students for professions of faith in class. At least one science teacher treats the Bible as scientific fact, telling students that the Big Bang never happened and that evolution is a 'stupid' theory that 'stupid people made up because they don't want to believe in God.' Paintings of Jesus Christ, Bible verses, and Christian devotional phrases adorn the walls of many classrooms and hallways, including the main hallway leading out to the bus pick-up area. A lighted, electronic marquee placed just outside the building scrolls Bible verses every day. And staff members routinely lead students in Christian prayer. The school district's administration - all the way up to the superintendent of schools- not only knows about these activities, but endorses and encourages all of this."

The Lanes say that when they complained of these "unlawful practices" to Superintendent Ebarb, she "took no corrective action. On the contrary, she told the Lanes that 'this is the Bible Belt' and that they would simply have to accept that teachers would proselytize students. She also asked whether C.C. had to be raised as a Buddhist and whether he could 'change' his faith, and she suggested that C.C. transfer to another district school -more than 25 miles away where, in her words, 'there are more Asians.' The day after meeting with the Lanes, the superintendent sent a letter to Negreet Principal Gene Wright stating that she approved of Negreet's official religious practices. Wright read the letter to the entire Negreet student body over the school's public-address system."

To cap it off, the complaint states: "On one occasion, the final question of an exam required students to fill in the blank to this question: "ISN'T IT AMAZING WHAT THE _____________ HAS MADE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" See Ex. A, a copy of the exam.

"Having been raised a Buddhist, C.C. was uncertain about the expected answer and left the question blank. When the test was returned to him, Roark had marked the question wrong and written 'LORD' in red ink as the correct answer. See Ex. A. She also scolded C.C., with the entire class listening, for not writing in the correct answer. C.C.'s sister, who is also in Roark's class, explained that her brother is a Buddhist and does not believe in God. After Roark returned to her desk, a student remarked, 'you're stupid if you don't believe in God.' Roark looked up and shook her head yes in affirmation of the student's remark.

"C.C. felt sick and humiliated after the incident."

During a meeting described in the lawsuit, "Ebarb defended Roark specifically, declaring that '[t]eachers have religious freedom.' Purporting to illustrate her point further, she noted that, because she did not find it offensive that 'the lady who cuts [her] toenails has a statue of Buddha,' Plaintiffs should not be bothered by Roark's in-class proselytization."

C.C.'s parents say the repeated proselytization and humiliation have made their son physically ill and to dread attending school.

They seek an injunction, costs and compensatory damages, including the costs of taking C.C. to a different school.

They are represented by Justin Harrison with the ACLU Foundation of Louisiana in New Orleans.

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