Louisiana School District Called Out Again For Religious Proselytizing

Bossier Parish school prayer

The Bossier Parish, Louisiana school district is back in the news again this week as an elementary teacher faces allegations of conducting open prayer with students in her classroom. The allegation follows recent controversy where the parish’s high school faced national backlash over a letter sent to all students (and their parents) threatening to punish any student athlete who engages in silent protest during the national anthem.

Red River Radio reported on the school district’s most recent controversy when they spoke with Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) associate counsel Sam Grover. Grover said:

“This began with a local community member contacting (FFRF) to let us know what was going on. What we were told is that this teacher goes student by student and asks each student ‘what would they like to pray for?’; the teacher then delivers a brief Christian prayer for whatever the student requests.  And then writes it down and moves on to the next student.”

He later added:

“The only reason that this is an issue at all is because the government is involved. This is the government prescribing a religious preference to a bunch of first-graders and that violates the Constitution.  Each individual family within the district has the absolute right to believe whatever religion they choose to believe.  That’s not what’s at issue here.”

Red River Radio added:

Grover also explained that parents had received an e-mail from the teacher to let them know what she was doing and that the students could “opt-out” from the prayer activity.  “But at the end of the day “explained Grover, “that doesn’t make the practice any more legal…” explained Grover.

The Shreveport Times added context on that notification sent to parents:

Bossier Parish first-grade teacher Kelli Aiello told parents in an email earlier this month that “the Lord has laid this on my heart” — “this” being to pray in the classroom with students whose parents didn’t object.

Aiello teaches at Legacy Elementary, 4830 Swan Lake Road. According to her classroom page on Legacy’s website, she has taught in Bossier Parish for 19 years and at Legacy for nine. Calls to Aiello were not returned.

She emailed parents on Oct. 15 about praying with students, according to a copy of the email that a parent shared with The Times. After a “Hi Parents” greeting, she wrote in the email:

“Tomorrow I will be setting up a prayer/blessing jar in my classroom for any student that would like me to pray with them. The Lord has laid this on my heart and I want to do this for my students. It can be as simple as….pray for my pet, a friendship, subject area that may be struggling in, etc.. If you do not want me to extend this offer to your child, please just send me an email and let me know. This is just a little something extra that I would like to do for them. Have a great week!”

In their letter to the school, FFRF said in part:

“We are informed that at the start of class Ms. Aiello goes student-by-student and asks what the student would like to pray for. The teacher then delivers a brief Christian prayer for whatever the child requests, writes down what the prayer was for, and moves on to the next student.”

They added, “Any student who is opted out will still have to sit through the prayers and their non participation will be noted by their classmates, which lead to ostracism and potentially bullying.”

This isn’t the first time Bossier Parish has been in the national spotlight – not even the for violating the First Amendment’s prohibition of religious endorsement. Two years ago students at Airline High School (in Bossier Parish) made similar complaints about religious proselytizing at their school. We reported at the time:

Speaking with Slate’s Zack Kopplin, current and former students accused the school district of several offenses including teaching Creationism as science, pressuring student attendance at Fellowship of Christian Athletes club meetings, warning girls against contraceptive use by a by a “born again virgin” from the local crisis pregnancy center and more.

The entire exposé of the school’s illicit religious dealings is worth a read.

Responding to their newest controversies, the Bossier Parish school administration doesn’t seem too concerned over the threat of costly litigation they’ll inevitably lose (as the Supreme Court has definitively and repeatedly ruled on these topics). The Shreveport Times recently reported:

The Bossier schools superintendent had not officially responded to the organizations as of Thursday. But Scott did issue a statement saying the district would not bend to outsiders trying to establish secular approaches for Bossier Parish.

The letters were prompted by events in late September surrounding potential national anthem protests in Bossier Parish.

Smith said in a Sept. 27 statement tied to national anthem protests by National Football League players that Bossier athletes would stand during the anthem before games or face consequences.

“Freedom is not free,” Smith said in that statement.

Any punishment for protesting, Smith said then, would be left to individual schools. The next day, Parkway High Principal Waylon Bates sent a letter to athletes and parents saying that players who failed to stand during the national anthem would lose playing time and may be removed from teams.

They added:

While Bossier schools have not responded formally to the groups, Smith, the superintendent, said in a statement this week to The Times that the district would not change its stance on prayer and the national anthem.

“The letter from the American Atheists and its co-signers has been forwarded to our attorneys for review,” he said. “However, until we are instructed by a higher authority to reverse our district’s stance, we stand firm.

“A letter from groups whose goal is to establish a secular society void of traditional values does not come close to reflecting the ideals held in Bossier Parish and will not affect our stance whatsoever.”

When multiple groups respond with costly litigation on behalf of the families lodging civil rights complaints against the district, the potential to have to cut every school-funded extracurricular activity (including sports) may change Bossier Schools Superintendent Scott Smith’s mind. (It certainly changed every other similarly minded district when forced to pay for their illegal violation of students’ First Amendment rights.)

PREVIOUSLY

Tim Peacock is the Managing Editor and founder of Peacock Panache and has worked as a civil rights advocate for over twenty years. During that time he’s worn several hats including leading on campus LGBT advocacy in the University of Missouri campus system, interning with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and volunteering at advocacy organizations. You can learn more about him at his personal website.

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