By Brian Blackwell, Message staff writer
BOSSIER CITY – Northwest Louisiana is the sight of yet another battle for religious freedom in public schools.
The Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union recently sent a letter to the superintendent of the Bossier Parish Schools, accusing Airline High School of “engaging in a pattern of religious proselytization.”
The letter states that prayer boxes with Christian symbols have been established by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (a student organization) throughout the school and religious messages have been included in newsletters posted on Airline High School’s website. After the letter was sent to Bossier Parish Schools, the ACLU learned information from a source was not entirely accurate.
“We had a photograph of those boxes and were told that they were scheduled to be installed the next day, which did not happen,” said ACLU Louisiana Executive Director Marjorie Esman in an email to The Baptist Message. “Our goal is, as it always is, to ensure compliance with the law. I hope you will make clear that the ACLU has a long and proud history of defending the religious rights of all Americans.”
The ACLU also states in the letter they understand that Airline High School Principal Jason Rowland has encouraged students to “pray to the Almighty God.”
“This letter is to inform you these practices violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and comparable provisions of the Louisiana Constitution, and they must stop immediately,” the letter states.
But that is not the case, according to Mike Johnson, a Shreveport attorney and founder of Freedom Guard, a legal group that defends Christian individuals and businesses.
“This is typical of the ACLU,” said Johnson. “They’re on a seek-and-destroy mission for all things religious. The law is still on our side. There is no reason to give into these secularists.
Johnson, who has offered to defend Bossier Parish schools pro-bono, said the ACLU is ‘overstepping.’
“What they hope is when local bodies receive a letter, they bow to the pressure,” said Johnson, a member of First Baptist Church in Bossier City. “But what they’ve done is awakened a sleeping giant. This is not what the ACLU had in mind.”
Bossier Parish Schools released a statement on Sept. 25, acknowledging Superintendent D.C. Machen had received letters from the ACLU and Johnson. He then forwarded them to the school board’s legal counsel for review.
“As a public body, the Bossier Parish School Board is limited to taking official action at duly-convened meetings of the Board,” Machen said in a statement issued from his office. “As the subject letter was just received, it has been placed on the agenda of the Board’s October 1, 2015 School Board meeting. Further comment will result from any action taken at this particular meeting.
In the meantime, please understand the Bossier Parish School System enjoys an established record of achievement. Such success is due in large part to the fact that, as in this case, the system respects both the law and the religious beliefs of all its students and employees.”
Soon after news broke about the ACLU sending a letter to Bossier Parish Schools, those in support of Rowland and religious liberty took to social media to voice their opinion. The Facebook page, Praying for Airline High School, announced a prayer rally is scheduled for this Saturday at 8 a.m. at Airline High School. Through 9:15 am on Sept. 29, 1,300 people indicated they planned to attend.
John Fream, pastor of Cypress Baptist Church in Benton where Rowland is a member, is among those voicing his support for Rowland. He wrote on his Facebook page he plans on attending the prayer rally.
“The prayer rally came about from God stirring in the hearts of three ladies from our church,” Fream responding to The Baptist Message in an email wrote. “It started with about 10 people gathering to pray and through social media has grown to hundreds, probably thousands to come together on Saturday at Airline High School to pray.
“Jason Rowland is a tremendous man of God, who serves our community and our church. He is one of our best Sunday school teachers,” continued Fream. “Christians are just tired of having our rights stomped on and we want to stand in the gap as we seek God and support Jason Rowland.”
This is the second incident this year regarding religious freedom in a Shreveport-Bossier City public school.
In April, students were successful in getting the words “In God We Trust” back on the marquee at Ridgewood Middle School, a few weeks after someone filed a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union and school board, prompting the removal of the words on the sign.
The situation began in early April, after ACLU Louisiana wrote a letter to the Caddo Parish superintendent regarding religious statements made by Albert Hardison, a principal of Walnut Hill Elementary and Middle School, which is a school in Caddo Parish. The letter accused Hardison of violating the students’ First Amendment rights by writing a newsletter to parents, requesting they pray for students ahead of state testing. The newsletter also referenced a principal’s message that included mention of God and prayer.