Complaint says school prayer boxes wrongly promote religion

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BOSSIER CITY, La. (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union is accusing the Bossier Parish School Board of wrongly promoting religion by allowing the Fellowship of Christian Athletes to set up prayer-request boxes at Airline High School in Bossier City.

The ACLU, in an open letter dated Thursday, says that's one in a pattern of activities violates the Constitution's First Amendment prohibition against establishment of religion. The group also cites a website message from Airline High principal Jason Rowland that includes the phrase "The Future Starts Today — May God Bless You All"

District spokeswoman Sonja Bailes said the school board and superintendent will discuss the situation at the board's Thursday meeting

"The system respects both the law and the religious beliefs of all its students and employees," Bailes wrote in a Friday email.

Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, demanded that the prayer request boxes be removed and that references to prayer stop on school district websites. The group also demanded that school employees be educated about protecting students and staff from religious indoctrination and that Rowland be told school communications can't include "religious references of any kind."

"There is no question that the principal has violated these legal mandates by invoking God, prayer, and Christianity in school publications and on school grounds," Esman wrote. "This unlawful religious coercion is improper from any school employee but it is particularly egregious coming from the school principal, whose job is to teach and uphold, rather than violate, the legal rights of all."

Freedom Guard, a legal group led by state Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, offered in a Friday letter to defend the school district free of charge.

"The ACLU's claims have no merit, and we will happily defend you and our Bossier Parish Schools free of charge if you simply ignore the ACLU and affirm the constitutional rights at issue," Johnson wrote. "As usual, the ACLU is wrong on both the facts and the law."

Johnson said Freedom Guard successfully defended the Bossier schools in a lawsuit challenging a nativity display at an elementary school about 10 years ago.

He wrote that students have the right to set up prayer request boxes based on their own free-speech rights. Johnson also wrote that Rowland's used of the phrase "God bless" is an "an innocuous reference to our religious heritage" comparable to the mention of God in the Pledge of Allegiance.

"Just because an activist organization in New Orleans trolls the internet in search of something to be offended by does not mean than any constitutional line has been crossed here or that any behavior should be modified," Johnson wrote.

It's the latest in a series of dust-ups over religion in schools in northwest Louisiana.

In April, the ACLU complained about religious messages in Walnut Hill Elementary-Middle School's newsletter and on its website, prompting a prayer rally to support the principal of the Shreveport school. KSLA-TV ( ) reports the school district removed mentions of religion from its websites

In 2014, the Sabine Parish school district settled an ACLU-backed lawsuit in which the parents of a Buddhist sixth-grader alleged he was harassed and that school officials routinely pushed Christian beliefs.

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