Sumner County Board of Education Ends Endorsement of Religion in Schools

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ACLU-TN Concerns Addressed in Settlement Agreement

December 7, 2011

CONTACT: Hedy Weinberg, ACLU of Tennessee, (615) 320-7142

NASHVILLE – The Sumner County Board of Education voted last night to enter into a consent decree with the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee (ACLU-TN) that ends the unconstitutional pattern and practice of religious activities in the Sumner County School System.

The settlement was agreed to after ACLU-TN filed a lawsuit against the school district on May 2, 2011 in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. ACLU-TN filed the lawsuit after months of negotiations with the school district failed to create sufficient changes to school policies and practices.

ACLU-TN Cooperating Attorney George Barrett, on behalf of Barrett Johnston, LLC, said, “We are pleased that the Sumner County School Board ultimately recognized its obligation to ensure the religious freedom of its students by preventing school officials from promoting their personal religious beliefs.”

Filed on behalf of nine students attending five Sumner County schools, the lawsuit alleged a pattern and practice of the promotion and endorsement of religious activity dating back as early as 2006. This pattern and practice included teachers leading students in prayer and Bible study sessions; the opening of Sumner County schools to youth ministers who frequently spoke with students at lunch tables about their churches and ministries; the distribution of Bibles during instructional time; the display of a cross on a classroom wall; preferential treatment of religious organizations in their ability to distribute materials to students; songs at school musical performances being predominantly religious; school events being held at churches; and the opening of school board meetings with prayer.

“The sheer number of families in this case who felt that their right to make decisions about their children’s religious experiences was being hampered by the Sumner County schools indicates the depth and prevalence of the schools’ entanglement with religion,” said Tricia Herzfeld, ACLU-TN Legal Director. “This settlement is a far-reaching victory for students’ religious liberty.”

In accordance with the settlement, school officials can no longer promote their personal religious beliefs to students. Religious symbols and items may not be displayed in a place publicly visible to students. Teachers may supervise student clubs but can no longer participate in their activities and school officials cannot encourage or solicit prayer at school functions. School events may not be held in religious venues except under certain limited conditions and the schools can no longer take field trips to religious sites. Only family members will be permitted to visit schools at lunchtime. Groups wishing to distribute materials to students, such as members of Gideons International, must do so in a neutral way, minimizing contact with students and no groups will be given preferential access to students. Non-religious clubs shall not have “chaplain” positions and all course materials and choral music must have a clear pedagogical purpose.

This is the third time in three years that ACLU-TN has successfully represented families in school systems where school-sponsored religious activities were taking place. In 2010, the Cheatham County school system agreed to a court order requiring that religious practices at the school halt and in 2008 a federal judge ordered the Wilson County schools to end their endorsement of religion.

“Decisions about whether and how to educate children about religion belong in the hands of families and faith communities, not public school systems” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN Executive Director. “We are hopeful that the signed agreement will persuade other school systems to respect the diverse religious faiths of their students and uphold the constitutional guarantees of the First Amendment.”

In addition to Barrett and Herzfeld, the Does were represented by Scott Tift of Barrett Johnston, LLC.

A copy of the lawsuit is available online here.

A copy of the settlement agreement is available here.