ACLU sues La. school system over Bible distribution

By The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — A middle school principal in Tangipahoa Parish improperly allowed people to distribute Gideon Bibles to students on school property during class hours, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a complaint filed yesterday in federal court.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the parents of a fifth-grader at Loranger Middle School, is the fifth filed against the Tangipahoa Parish School System over religion in public schools during the past 13 years.

“School officials in Tangipahoa Parish habitually show disdain for the Constitution, while disrespecting the right of parents, who happen to be Catholic in this case, to choose the religious tradition in which to raise their children,” said Joe Cook, the ACLU executive director for Louisiana.

Phone messages left with Loranger Middle School principal Andre Pellerin and acting Tangipahoa Parish schools superintendent Mark Kolwe were not returned.

The ACLU identified the student under the pseudonym Jane Roe because her family feared retribution from school officials, Cook said.

The lawsuit details an instance during which the girl’s class was told by their teacher to pick up their New Testament Bibles in front of the school office. The girl ended up in a line with the entire fifth grade, while two men handed each student a Bible and said, “God bless you.”

“With her classmates and teachers looking on, Jane accepted the Bible out of a feeling of coercion and fear that she would be criticized, ridiculed and ostracized,” Cook wrote in a statement about the lawsuit.

If people who want to hand out Bibles “stand on the sidewalk on public property outside the school, they can hand out information like anyone else, but they can’t do it on school grounds, during school hours, because then it appears as though it’s being sponsored by the school,” Cook said.

“It’s important that people of all religious traditions be made to feel welcome in their own schools and not like outsiders.”

Previously, the ACLU has sued the Tangipahoa Parish school board over:

  • Disclaimers placed in science books which stated that evolution was a theory that did not necessarily disprove creationism.

  • Schools allowing a minister — the so-called pizza preacher — to give out pizza and teach Christianity on school grounds during lunch periods.

  • Prayers said over the intercom, at school-sponsored events such as football games and at school board meetings.

  • Prayers led by a teacher in the classroom.

Most of the claims in the previous lawsuits have been settled, but the school system has appealed a judge’s ruling that Christian prayers at school board meetings were unconstitutional. Oral arguments are scheduled for May 22 in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

Cook said the ACLU also has filed a handful of contempt-of-court motions over instances in which Tangipahoa schools officials have defied orders set forth in past settlements with the civil rights group over religious activity at public schools or school-sponsored events.

The U.S. Constitution “requires government neutrality in matters of religion and non-religion to prevent tyranny by the majority,” Cook said. “School officials who choose to ignore that fundamental principle, especially with children involved, act un-American and undermine the very freedom and democracy that makes this country great.”