STILWELL, Okla. (KFOR) – An Oklahoma public school district has settled a lawsuit alleging First Amendment violations via required religious education for pre-K through 8th-grade students.
The American Humanist Association (AHA) filed the lawsuit against Maryetta Public Schools, saying students were forced to participate in evangelistic religious activities during a monthly, hour-long class called “Missionaries,” a program that has since been disbanded.
“During this class, three Christian missionaries proselytized Christianity to a captive audience of prekindergarten through eighth grade students. Students were given bibles and coloring books, and led in singing songs about Jesus, all during school hours and under the direct authority of school officials,” said AHA. “Non-Christian students were forced to attend this class without their parents’ knowledge or consent.”
As part of the settlement agreement, the district will issue a public statement recognizing the constitutional violation of the program and affirming that it will not be reinstated, and school administrators statewide will be informed how to avoid violating the First Amendment and their responsibilities under the Establishment Clause.
“As a native Oklahoman, I know from personal experience how hard it can be to raise children as part of a religious minority,” said local counsel James M. Branum of Oklahoma City. “People of minority religious traditions (and of no faith) should not have to fear that their children will face involuntary religious indoctrination if they attend public schools.”
The school also agreed to pay damages to the family of a former Maryetta School student who was required to attend nearly a dozen of the “Missionaries” seminars as a preschooler.
AHA says the child and her family are humanists and members of the Cherokee Nation, but during more than one class, she was forced to feign belief in the Christian god and told she would “get in trouble” if she said god did not exist.
“This case highlights the continued importance of the wall separating church and state. Considering nominal damages of $1 are common in First Amendment cases, $12,000 in damages in this case is significant,” said AHA Senior Counsel, Katie McKerall. “It reaffirms the right of freedom of conscience for all. It is a victory for our clients, who have shown immense courage to challenge prejudices and preconceived notions, despite the public backlash and intimidation they faced. It is also a victory for education, understanding, and tolerance, because the settlement agreement provides that educational materials outlining schools’ responsibilities under the Establishment Clause will be provided to school districts across the state of Oklahoma. Countering misinformation with education about the true meaning of the First Amendment will reduce the likelihood that this kind of egregious constitutional violation will happen again.”
You can read the full suit here.