May 6 (UPI) -- Officials of the public Smith County School System in Tennessee will stop incorporating prayer into school events and distributing Bibles while a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of four atheist students and their parents is pending.
The two sides consented to the conditions to ensure that the families' rights are protected until a settlement is reached or a final ruling is issued in the case. U.S. District Chief Judge Waverly Crenshaw Jr. signed a preliminary injunction on April 17 that lists the acts that are banned.
The suit, filed by Kelly Butler on behalf of his two daughters and Jason and Sharona Carr on behalf of their son and daughter, alleges the students, who attend Smith County High School and Smith County Middle School in Carthage, Tenn., are subjected to unwelcome indoctrination and religious messages. School-sponsored official prayer is common at athletic events, religious iconography and messages adorn the walls of the schools and teachers proselytize their Christian faith, according to the suit.
"All of these activities send a clear message to minority-faith and non-religious students that they are second-class members of the school community while their Christian peers are favored by school officials," the suit says.
In addition, the suit contends, the activities harm parents by usurping their right to control the religious or non-religious upbringing of their children.
The preliminary injunction bars teachers and other school officials from promoting prayers at school events; putting a religious title on school events; organizing a religious service; requiring or encouraging students to attend a religious service; or citing or assigning readings from the Bible.
School officials are allowed to wear jewelry or religious articles such as a cross necklace or a yarmulke, under the injunction. They also can use religious symbols or books for a non-religious educational purpose.
The suit was filed Nov. 18 in U.S. District Court in Nashville by lawyers with the national American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Tennessee. Named as defendants are the Smith County Board of Education; Director of Schools Barry H. Smith; Kelly Bell, the middle school's principal; and Dusty Whitaker, the high school's principal. The director and principals are sued in their official capacities.
The suit seeks a declaration that the actions by the defendants are a violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from establishing an official religion or favoring one religion over others. In addition, the plaintiffs want an order barring the defendants from promoting religion.
A spokeswoman for the ACLU of Tennessee declined to comment about the case. The defendants could not be reached; they deny in court documents that they violated students' constitutional rights.
The consent decree says the defendants have acknowledged that some of the actions at the center of the case occurred, including the delivery of prayer over the public address system at school events; the participation in prayers by coaches with students before and after sporting events; the distribution of Bibles to fifth-grade students by members of The Gideons International; and a teacher's reading of Bible verses to students at the beginning of class.
One of the high school plaintiffs says in a written declaration that her homeroom teacher told students who got in trouble that they should go to church or that they need Jesus in their life. As a member of the concert band, she was required to attend an event last September featuring two church choirs or receive a grade of zero, she says.
"School sponsorship of prayer and religious messages makes me deeply uncomfortable because I am an atheist," the girl's declaration says. "Due to the official prayers, religious messages, and other religious activities, I feel that school officials are trying to pressure me into becoming a Christian."
Another plaintiff said the middle school held mandatory assemblies called "family meetings," where students and staff members were asked to identify people to pray for. A third plaintiff said her middle school graduation included a Christian prayer.
In a court document, the defendants acknowledge holding the family meetings but say they do not ask the students for prayer subjects. At various events, students have voluntarily delivered a prayer and some coaches participate in prayer with students before and after sporting events but those prayers are not "official," they insist.
The defendants also admit that representatives from The Gideons International were permitted to enter a fifth-grade classroom last October and distribute Bibles to students who wanted one but denied that school officials had invited them.
School prayer has long been a controversial issue. On Jan. 16, the Trump administration issued guidance on school prayer, which was an update of the existing one issued in 2003 by then-President George W. Bush. A written statement says President Donald Trump "remains committed to protecting every student's constitutional right to pray in school."
The guidance says teachers and other public school officials cannot lead their classes in prayer or other religious activities and cannot try to persuade students to participate in those activities. It also says there is nothing in the Constitution that prohibits students from praying at any time during the school day.
In addition, the guidance says that to receive federal funds, local educational agencies must certify they do not have policies that prevent participation in constitutionally protected prayer in public schools.
Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, says the new guidance is almost identical to the existing one.
"Importantly, both the Bush guidance and the copycat document released today affirm a core constitutional protection: School officials are prohibited from imposing their faith on students," Mach says in a written statement issued the same day the new guidance was announced. "The question, as always, is whether public school officials will heed this warning. If they don't, we'll be there, as always, to correct them -- and if necessary, we'll see them in court."