ACLU sues Smith Co. Schools for using prayer, religious imagery in school

Posted at 4:33 PM, Nov 18, 2019

CARTHAGE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) of Tennessee filed a lawsuit against Smith County Schools on behalf of two families who say the school system regularly incorporates prayer into school events and proselytizes students.

The plaintiffs are listed as Kelly Butler and Jason and Sharona Carr.

“When I was in the military, I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution, which includes religious freedom,” said Butler, a U.S. Army veteran and father to several children who attend Smith County schools. “It’s wrong for the public schools to make my family feel like second-class citizens because of our beliefs.”

Butler and his children are atheists, as are the Carrs and their children.

The families' accounts span several school years and include things like school-directed prayer during mandatory assemblies, the distribution and display of Bibles during classes, Bible verses posted in hallways and shared in notes from school staff to students, prayers broadcast through loudspeakers at school sporting events, coaches leading or participating in prayer with student athletes, and a large cross painted on the wall of a school athletic facility.

“At school everybody makes it seem like you have to believe in one thing, just like them. It’s very awkward and uncomfortable,” said Leyna Carr, a student at Smith County High School. “I respect other people’s religion, and I would like it if everyone else would respect my beliefs.”

“When public schools promote religion, it sends an impermissible message that students who don’t share the favored religious beliefs don’t belong,” said Heather L. Weaver, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “Our clients are part of the school community, and school officials have no right to alienate them in this way.”

“Public schools are supposed to be places where all students are welcomed and given access to quality education, regardless of their religious beliefs,” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN executive director.
“The religious freedom of Tennessee families can only be protected if the government is not promoting or sponsoring religious activities. Decisions about whether and how to practice religion are best left to families and faith communities, not public schools.”

The full suit can be read here. The three students continued to explain their experiences here.

When asked for comment, Smith County Schools said the following:

The Smith County Board of Education has been aware through media reports of potential litigation brought on behalf of certain parents and students connected with the school system. Neither the Board nor any individual administrator has been served with a filed copy of any suit. The Board had no prior notice of suit being filed (sic) against it or its administrators. The issues reported to be a part of this suit are of great importance to the school system and the community. Any suit dealing with this subject matter will be immediately defended and treated with utmost seriousness.
Barry H. Smith, Director of Schools