Cheatham County BoE Settles ACLU First Amendment Lawsuit

Friday, March 5, 2010
Cheatham County Court HouseCheatham County Court House
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jimmywayne via Flickr 
Cheatham County tried to do just that (cheat them that is) but got a beat down by the ACLU instead.
Tenn. school board settles lawsuit over First Amendment violations
By Bob Allen  
Thursday, March 04, 2010

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (ABP) -- A Tennessee school board voted March 1 to settle a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union last fall alleging a pattern of unconstitutional promotion of religion.

The Cheatham County Board of Education voted 5-1 to accept a settlement agreement with the ACLU of Tennessee, ending negotiations that have been going on since January.

Under terms of the agreement, school officials will no longer encourage prayer or promote their personal religious beliefs to students in class or in conjunction with school activities and events. Invocations will no longer be permitted at graduation ceremonies or school functions and speakers will no longer be selected because of their religious affiliations.

In addition, school officials will no longer permit non-student third parties, such as members of The Gideons International, to distribute Bibles during school activities or instructional time.

School officials will not cite the Bible or other sacred texts as authority for historical or scientific fact to students and will make good faith-efforts to avoid holding school programs at religious venues.

"We applaud the Cheatham County Board of Education's decision to uphold the principle of religious freedom," said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of ACLU-Tennessee. "The signed agreement ensures that all students will be treated fairly, regardless of their religious beliefs, and that the school system can focus on what it does best: providing a quality education for Cheatham County students."

The Tennessee chapter of the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the school district Nov. 16 in federal court after six months of negotiations failed to resolve the dispute.

The ACLU sued the school district on behalf of two former students and the families of two current students who alleged that board members and the principals of two schools for years have endorsed and promoted religion through extracurricular activities like marching band, choir and sports; classroom instruction and related content; and graduation ceremonies and other school events.

Specific allegations included:

    * A band instructor who, while leading the marching band in practice for an upcoming football halftime performance, stopped and called on a particular student to pray.
    * A December 2007 concert where students sang Christmas and other seasonal songs and the choir director said something like, "We all know the reason we are here tonight, even if we are not allowed to say it" to the crowd.
    * A band Christmas concert in 2008 where students were asked to read lyrics or introductions to Christmas songs before the band played them. One of the plaintiffs was selected to read a religious lyric, but was reassigned a non-religious lyric after another student objected that it shouldn't be read by a non-Christian.
    * Distribution of Gideon Bibles inside classrooms at Cheatham Middle School, in which students were instructed to line up to receive Bibles and to write their names in them.
    * One high-school teacher displayed a foot-tall cross in his classroom next to a whiteboard used for student instruction. Another teacher required students to read and write about the biblical creation stories as an assignment for English class. A world history teacher introduced "intelligent design" as an acceptable alternative to evolution. An American history teacher read, in an angry tone, a handout emphasizing that the United States was founded as a "Christian nation" and criticizing the ACLU. None of those incidents, the lawsuit argues, were related to the general curriculum of the class or relevant to lessons being discussed that week.

Charles Haynes of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center said at the time if the allegations were true, the school district in Cheatham County was "in clear violation" of the First Amendment

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