FLORENCE, S.C. (CN) – A family says a public school district is unconstitutionally promoting Christianity, brazenly requiring students to attend “an evangelical revival assembly to ‘save’ students” by coming to Jesus, and telling a father who complained about it that he “needed to get right with God.”
On his own behalf and for his son, Jonathan Anderson sued the Chesterfield County School District and School Board, Superintendent John Williams and New Heights Middle School Principal Larry Stinson, in Federal Court.
Anderson says that on Sept. 1 this year, “New Heights Middle School officials held an evangelical revival assembly intended to ‘save’ students by encouraging them to accept Jesus Christ into their hearts. The school-day assembly featured a minister who delivered a sermon, a Christian rapper (known as ‘B-SHOC’), and church members who prayed with students. Students were urged to sign a pledge dedicating themselves to Christ. The event was remarkable because it showed how brazen school officials have become in flouting the law and infringing students’ and parents’ First Amendment rights.”
The complaint states: “The first amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits public schools from proselytizing students, sponsoring prayer, or otherwise promoting religion. When public school officials engage in these unconstitutional activities, they harm schoolchildren by coercing them into religious practice and subjecting them to unwelcome indoctrination and religious messages; they harm parents by usurping their right to control the religious upbringing of their children; and they harm families and the community as a whole by sending a divisive message of religious favoritism for those who adhere to school officials’ preferred faith.”
The Sept. 1 evangelical assembly was neither the first nor last time the school district violation the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, Anderson says.
“Rather, the district has a longstanding custom, policy, and practice of coercing and encouraging religious activities, as well as conveying religious messages, throughout district schools, including New Heights Middle School. District officials have repeatedly incorporated prayer and proselytizing into various school-sponsored events, such as school-day assemblies, choral concerts, awards ceremonies, and football games. School officials also openly encourage students to attend religious events, such as student religious clubs, and participate in those activities themselves. In addition, religious iconography and messages adorn the main office, lobby, and hallways of New Heights Middle School and school officials even had a cross depicted in the eye of the school’s hawk mascot when it was recently painted on the gymnasium floor.”
Anderson says that when he and his son expressed concern about the practices and explained that the practices did not comport with their non-Christian beliefs, “one teacher told Son that he should not disclose the fact that he is a non-believer. And defendant Larry Stinson, principal of New Heights, told Father that he needed to ‘get right with God.'”
Anderson says his son’s right to attend public school should not be conditioned upon acceptance of unwelcome exposure to government-sponsored religious practices and messages. He says religious education and instruction is a matter for parents, not public school officials.
He says that neither he nor his son, nor anyone else, should be made to feel like outsiders in their own community “merely because they do not subscribe to the particular religious beliefs and practices promoted by school officials”.
Anderson seeks declaratory judgment that the defendants’ policies are unconstitutional because they are religiously coercive, endorse and promote a religion and have the purpose and effect of advancing religion.
He wants the school district and its officials enjoined from continuing the behavior, displaying religious iconography or distributing Bibles and other religious literature during the school day, or otherwise unconstitutionally endorsing religion or religiously coercing students or parents.
The Andersons are represented by Susan Dunn with the ACLU of South Carolina, in Charleston.