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Sabine Parish public school under national spotlight for religious intolerance

10th February 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Marjorie R. Esman
Contributing Writer

Case making national news

In the western Louisiana Parish of Sabine, a case of religious intolerance is playing out in court and making national headlines in the process. The case pits Scott and Sharon Lane and their son C.C. against the Sabine Parish School Board. C.C. is of Thai descent and a lifelong Buddhist. Practically from the moment C.C. entered Negreet High School, he became the target of religious persecution and proselytizing, especially by one teacher; and eventually it became obvious that this behavior was not only condoned, but encouraged from the top.

Teacher goes too far

“Isn’t it amazing what the __________ has made!!!!!!” This was a question on a real science test administered by Rita Roarke, a teacher at Negreet. The only answer that Ms. Roarke would accept as correct is “Lord,” but when C.C. failed to write Ms. Roarke’s “expected” response, she marked him wrong. The same teacher regularly teaches her students that the earth was created by God 6,000 years ago even though the science curriculum provides evidence to the contrary. Evo­lution is “impossible,” she says, and the Bible is “100 percent true.” These are her religious beliefs, but they are not shared by C.C. When C.C’s family asked the school principal for help removing religion from the science class, she was no help – which is no surprise since the principal has allowed the regular incorporation of “official” Christian prayer into class and school events.

It goes to the top

Apart from the indoctrination that occurs in Ms. Roarke’s classroom, Negreet High was used to preach on a daily basis. A portrait of Jesus hung on the wall. Christian-themed posters were in the hallways. Bible verses scrolled on the electronic billboard outside the school. The statement “We believe that God exists” was prominently featured on the school’s website. Students were convened in regular Christian prayers. In short, the administration had converted the school into a center for Christian activity, rather than a secular public school.

When Sharon and Scott Lane met with the Superintendent, Sara Ebarb, about what was going on at the school they did not expect her to reinforce the religious indoctrination. But she told them that “This is the Bible Belt,” and suggested that C.C. should “change” his faith. Their only recourse, according to Ebarb, was to enroll C.C. in another district school, some 25 miles away. That school was more appropriate, she suggested, because “there are more Asians,” there.

Eventually, the Lanes decided to take legal action on behalf of their son, and on January 22, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Louisiana filed a federal lawsuit against the Sabine Parish School Board alleging that officials violated the 1st and 14th Amendment rights of sixth-grader C.C. by harassing him because of his Buddhist faith and for engaging in a pattern of religious proselytizing. Letters have also been filed with the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education, requesting investigations into the practices at Negreet High.

Teacher has right to beliefs, but not in class

This case is not just about C.C.’s right to his religious beliefs, or about keeping religion out of the classroom. On a purely legal level, it is against the law for public schools to teach one religion over any other or in any way force religious education on students. And its cases like this one that brings the need for this Constitutional protection into focus. Public schools should be welcoming places for students of all backgrounds. Every public school student has the right to a secular public education, and at Negreet, every student has been denied that fundamental right.

Like every American, Rita Roarke is entitled to her religious beliefs. The ACLU is proud to support and defend the rights of everyone to maintain their religious beliefs. But neither she nor any other government official—and as a public school teacher, that’s what she is—has the right to impose those beliefs on others. She is free to attend the church of her choice, and to adhere to the teachings of that church. And so are her students, who have the right to beliefs that may differ from hers.

The United States has greater religious diversity than any other country in the world. We have more Christian denominations and more other faiths than anyplace, because we do not allow the government to endorse or interfere in religious practice. In America’s public schools, no child should be harassed and made to feel like an outsider; and students should not have to endure school officials imposing religious beliefs on them while they are trying to learn. That’s simply not the American way. Negreet High needs to obey the law, to protect C.C. and all of the other students there.

This article originally published in the February 10, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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