NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CN) – Sumner County public school officials “persistently and pervasively used their official positions to promote their religious beliefs,” inviting Gideon’s International into school “to proselytize and distribute Bibles directly to public school students,” parents of elementary, middle and high school students say in Federal Court.
The John and Jane Doe parents and children sued the Sumner County Board of Education, its members, and five school principal in a constitutional complaint.
Sumner County is just north of Nashville. Its county seat is Gallatin.
The parents say its school board and administrators have given the Baptist Church a free hand to proselytize in the public schools.
Represented by the ACLU, the parents say school administrators join the church, unconstitutionally, by promoting “their personal religious beliefs, as well as proselytizing to students in class and during extracurricular activities.”
Christian prayers are a regular feature of morning announcements, and the high school plans to hold its graduation ceremonies at a Baptist Church, though other, neutral venues are available, the parents say.
Students at two elementary schools say they were given New Testament Bibles at school. One was instructed to line up outside her fifth-grade classroom, so each student could get one, and another fifth-grader at a different school says eh “received a New Testament Bible from people who entered her school to distribute Bibles to students during instructional time.”
The parents also object that the School Board begins each meeting with a prayer, and that “on at least one occasion, the opening prayer has consisted of a lengthy sermon which was delivered by Reverend Will Duncan.”
One middle school teacher hangs a cross in her classroom, and seven of nine of the Ellis Middle School chorus’s fall program consisted of religious songs “approved by the faculty and administration,” according to the complaint.
Parents object that three Sumner County high schools plan to have this year’s graduation ceremonies at Long Hollow Baptist Church, though “other reasonable venues exist for future graduation ceremonies.”
Long Hollow Baptist Church is also where T.W. Hunter Middle School students plan to go to celebrate the end of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program.
Parents say no permission slips are required for the event and students who do not want to go must remain at the middle school and do extra work.
“The youth minister from Long Hollow Baptist Church, Brian Mills, joins T.W. Middle School students for lunch at least once a week, but frequently more often,” the complaint states.
“Though the Board was put on actual notice months ago and had constructive notice before then, it has failed to investigate these constitutional violations and has refused to take action sufficient to correct the abridgement of students’ Establishment Clause rights and to prevent school officials from promoting their personal religious beliefs.”
The parents seek a restraining order and injunction, nominal damages, and also want the school officials restrained from retaliating against them or their children.
They are represented by Tricia Herzfeld, legal director of the ACLU Foundation of Tennessee, and George Barrett with Barrett Johnston, both of Nashville.