The strange saga of a Louisiana school district and the Buddhist student its officials allegedly drove away in the name of Christianity came to an end last Friday. A federal court’s order set new rules about how the school district must conduct itself and provided some financial relief for the student’s family.
The tale’s outlandish details — a teacher telling her class that a student’s religious beliefs were “stupid,” the same teacher instructing her students that scientists advancing the theory of evolution were “stupid,” pictures of Jesus hanging from the school walls — caught national attention in January when the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of the student and his family.
But at its end, the district has admitted no culpability and the student is still attending a school 25 miles from his home. The district has pledged, though, to pay $4,000 for the family’s past costs of driving their son to his new school — and to provide bus service from now until he graduates from high school.
The ACLU claimed victory after U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Foote on Friday ordered the Sabine Parish School Board, which serves about 4,000 students in western Louisiana, to reform its practices in response to the allegations by C.C., a Buddhist student of Thai descent, and his family, the Lanes. The order, known as a “consent decree” agreed upon by the plaintiffs and defendants, was entered as a “judgment in favor of the Plaintiffs,” Foote said.
“The court’s order, which took the form of a ‘consent decree’ agreed to by the school board, ensures that these unlawful practices will be discontinued in Sabine Parish and brings the case to a close,” Heather Weaver, who works in the group’s freedom of religion program, wrote in a blog post. “We applaud the board for doing right by C.C., his siblings, and all district students.”
But the school board, in an unattributed press release issued to TPM, admitted no wrongdoing after the order — consistent with its denials to the court. In fact, it portrayed the ACLU’s acquiescence to the consent decree as an admission that the group had no case against its officials accused of violating the student’s First Amendment rights.
“The Sabine Parish School Board was then able to resolve the remaining claims asserted by the ACLU,” the district said in the release. “This action was taken in order to comply with federal law and further financial loss to the District.”
Asked by TPM about the board’s apparent lack of remorse, Weaver said in an email that she was “puzzled.” She noted that the officials named in the order are required to sign a copy.
“Regardless, the Board’s statement in no way lessens our victory. Under the Court’s order, Sabine Parish’s longstanding flouting of the law has come to an end,” Weaver said. “We fully expect the Board and all three school officials identified in the Board’s statement to comply with the Court’s order because they know that, if they don’t, they will not only they be harming innocent children like C.C., but they will face serious judicial sanctions.”
According to the ACLU’s complaint, C.C. lasted less than a month at Negreet High School in Sabine Parish, from Aug. 8, 2013 to Sept. 3, 2013. During his time there, the complaint alleged, he was subjected to Christian proselytization from his teachers as well as discrimination because of his Buddhist beliefs.
The school board categorically denied the allegations made in the complaint and Friday’s court order made no ultimate determination of their truthfulness.
The complaint alleged that a science teacher at the school, Rita Roark, told her class, which C.C. attended, that the Big Bang never happened and that God had created the universe 6,000 years ago. She allegedly refused to teach the theory of evolution to the class, saying it was a theory “stupid people made up because they don’t want to believe in God.”
“If evolution was real, it would still be happening,” Roark allegedly said. “Apes would be turning into humans today.”
The last question on a test administered by Roark allegedly asked: “ISN’T IT AMAZING WHAT THE _____________ HAS MADE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
The correct answer was “Lord,” according to the complaint. But C.C. left the answer blank because he didn’t know the answer. Roark allegedly scolded C.C. in front of the rest of the class for not providing the correct response. After a second incident where C.C. was allegedly disparaged in front of the class by his teacher, C.C. told his mother about the incidents.
Roark also allegedly said during a social sciences class that Buddhism, C.C.’s religion, is “stupid.”
C.C.’s parents approached superintendent Sara Ebarb about their son’s allegations. Ebarb allegedly reminded the Lanes that they lived “in the Bible belt” and asked if C.C. “has to be raised Buddhist” or if he could “change” his religion. She eventually offered to transfer C.C. to another school 25 miles away, and he eventually was transferred by his parents to Many Junior High School.
The complaint also alleged that the school hung pictures of Jesus from its walls, ran Bible verses across its digital message board and held prayers before many school events.
The consent decree issued Friday sought to address many of the allegations made by C.C. and his family, though the school district never admitted to any wrongdoing. Prayer at school events is now prohibited. School officials are not allowed to formally organize religious events. Teachers and other employees are prohibited from promoting religious beliefs in an official capacity.
The school district is instructed to notify all employees of the order, create a process for complaints to be addressed, and set up a training session to educate employees on the new policies. The court maintains jurisdiction to ensure the order is carried out. After 10 years, either party is permitted to ask the court to review whether the order need be continued.