A Lesson Learned the Hard Way

Citizens concerned about attacks on religious liberty cannot depend on school boards to protect the religious liberties of their children, especially when the school board allows more public inquiry and discussion about rugby than it does a far-reaching settlement agreement drafted by the ACLU.

A few months ago we reported the ACLU had sued the Cheatham County Board of Education over various allegedly egregious religious indoctrination activities. Well, the matter came to a conclusion this week, and the results taught us a lesson the hard way.

When the lawsuit was first filed, the Alliance Defense Fund, an alliance of Christian attorneys committed to defending First Amendment religious liberty rights without charge, tried to find someone who would be willing to be represented by them. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, no one was ever found.

The reason the Alliance Defense Fund tries to find a student, student group (like FCA or Young Life) or faculty member to represent is that it allows that person or group to become a party to the lawsuit. You might wonder, why would anyone want to volunteer to be a party to a lawsuit?

The reason is that unless some group like the Alliance Defense Fund, that really knows First Amendment law, has a place at the “litigation table,” the school board is more likely to “lay down” than to stand up for the First Amendment rights of their students and faculty. And, sure enough, the “settlement” the Cheatham County school board reached with the ACLU shows why you can’t depend on your school board to put up much of a fight. There are a couple of reasons why this is so.

Why School Boards Won’t Defend Your Rights Much

First, the school board attorney typically has limited knowledge about First Amendment law, not surprising since First Amendment claims aren’t everyday legal fare for them. In other words, your local school board most likely has a non-expert, non-seasoned lawyer when it comes to First Amendment litigation going up against sharp, veteran ACLU lawyers. It’s sort of David v. Goliath with the school board attorney the one with the slingshot (such a biblical reference, if not already illegal in a public school, probably will be illegal if we don’t pay attention).

Second, school boards are generally averse to having people fuss at them for wasting taxpayer dollars fighting over religion. And in a politically correct, don’t-be-perceived-as-intolerant-at-any-cost environment, courage is even harder to come by in elected officials.

Of course, it’s a sad commentary that school boards, by their actions, are “teaching” their students that it is not worth their effort to fight for constitutional rights or to put up with a little venom from a vocal minority. And it’s sad that enough of us don’t help them stand up by standing beside them. We may save money in the short run by avoiding legal fees but find we’ve lost our religious liberties in the process.

Is Rugby More Important Than Religious Liberty?

Anyway, the Chairman of the Cheatham County Ministerial Alliance asked the school board to delay the vote for two weeks for the citizens to have time to read the proposed settlement and have input with their elected official. No such luck! The school board approved the settlement anyway without opportunity for the citizens to know what was really going on. Reports have it that the board had more open meetings for the public to discuss some issues about rugby than this vote on religious liberty.

So, here are some lessons that need to be learned.

When the ACLU sues any government entity, citizens in that community should never, ever rely on the government’s attorney to protect their religious liberty—call us, call ADF, but get help. And when experts like ADF tell you what needs to be done, do it. Don’t assume someone else is going to get involved. And for sure don’t assume you’ll get a chance to express your opinion on an ACLU-approved settlement proposal before it gets accepted.

The other lesson is that we need to pay attention to who is running for our school boards. These are important positions. Much of the so-called “culture war” is being waged in our schools for the minds of our children. And if your school board member thinks rugby is more important than religious liberty, then the next lesson is this: Learn how to qualify as a candidate for the next school board election and learn how to run a winning campaign.