What happened when a student sued over school prayer

La. school used to start day with Lord's Prayer

By MALLORY SIMON, CNN
Copyright 2018 CNN

Kaylee Cole says her school in Louisiana feels like a church.

WEBSTER PARISH, Louisiana (CNN) - Kaylee Cole walks into school each morning and has breakfast with friends.

Every day starts the same: Announcements, birthdays and school events are broadcast over the public address system. What comes next is what she dreads.

"They say, 'Please stand for the Prayer and the Pledge.' And then we move right into it. And it's the Lord's Prayer," Cole says.

Cole sits down. Raised as a Christian but now agnostic, she doesn't want to hear it.

Nearly every other child, in every classroom, stands as a student reads the prayer.

"Our father, who art in heaven..."

Cole is silent, respectful, she says.

"Hallowed be thy name..."

Her classmates glare at her. One, she says, has even muttered, "Devil be rid of me!" at her.

But Cole, 17, has faith in her actions. She doesn't believe this kind of prayer is how her day should start at school -- a public one in Webster Parish, Louisiana. If that's what she wanted, she'd have gone to a private or parochial school.

That puts her at odds with residents of this self-professed "Christian-based" town in the northwest of the state near Shreveport. They don't dispute that prayer happens. They are proud of it. They defend it with vigor. They explain their love for God runs through their veins. It grounds them. It makes this community what it is. It isn't something they can leave at the door, even that of a public school.

"For ever and ever. Amen."

So what happens the first day back after Christmas break sends shockwaves through the community.

That day, Cole walks into her classroom at Lakeside Junior/High School. She prepares to sit again. She knows she may be hissed at.

But something different happens.

Students say the pledge. But this time there is no Lord's Prayer. It is the first time in as long as anyone in Webster Parish can remember.

The change came because Kaylee Cole and her mother Christy had finally had enough, and decided to take on the school system by filing a lawsuit alleging there is systematic official promotion of religion at Webster Parish schools in violation of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

The Coles say that prayer over the loudspeaker each morning is just the beginning of an unconstitutional indoctrination of students that is promoted and supported by teachers, the principal, the superintendent and the school board.

"Virtually all school events -- such as sports games, pep rallies, assemblies, and graduation ceremonies --include school-sponsored Christian prayer, religious messages and/or proselytizing," according to the lawsuit filed with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Kaylee Cole, in her senior year, shows us photos of signs on a teacher's wall: "Want Change? Pray." Daily objectives listed include: "Love God," "Worship God," "Read the Bible."

Religion made its way into instruction, too, Cole alleges. She recalls a teacher slapping the Bible on her desk and declaring it should be taken literally. And a science teacher saying evolution is a "fairy tale," that students should believe in "Adam and Eve, not the big bang."

Cole recounts events with speakers and groups billed as being about issues such as drugs or drunk driving that quickly meandered into what felt like a sermon. And Cole says she never was asked if she wanted to go, or given the chance to leave.

Which, to Cole, makes it feel like her education isn't so secular.

"For somebody like me, and some of the friends I know ... it does feel like a church," Cole says.

Student-inspired or indoctrination?

Kaylee Cole felt relief when silence replaced the broadcast prayer after the pledge that day in early January, a sign that her lawsuit was acknowledged.

Other schools in Webster Parish chose to either have a moment of silence, or simply had students sit back down.

That had its own impact. Greg Lee's fifth-grade daughter was upset, not relieved. She and her friends took it upon themselves to pray anyway, Lee says.

Lee, a banker who also views himself as a servant of God, says he's instilled his sense of deep faith in his children. It has always been a part of their life. They have always prayed -- at church, at school, and whenever they feel the need to.

"You have to realize that our tradition, our belief in God is so ingrained in us and so rooted in us that it's a part of everything that we do," Lee says. "I would like for my kid to be able to have the right and retain the right to pray and to have prayer in school."

The motivations of children are critical here. Residents believe the Constitution has no bearing on the prayers in school because they are student-led, student-inspired and not forced.

For Cole, her mother Christy, and the ACLU that is helping them in this fight, there is no debate. This isn't about whether a child can pray at school when they want. It's about changing a culture that they believe has existed for so long, in defiance of the Constitution.

"It's an official systematic program of indoctrinating every child in this parish. They indoctrinated all of their parents," Christy Cole says. "Anybody can pray any time they want, wherever they want. They're just not allowed to have a captive audience to do it. And I really feel like Kaylee (has) been part of that captive audience."

Where God is 'deeply steeped inside' people's hearts

As you walk the streets of the main downtown area in this parish, it soon becomes clear how the issue is very simple yet very complicated, and very emotional for residents.

Their faith is so deeply personal, but it's also interwoven with everything in the town.

There's no easy answer for where God's law ends and the law of the land begins.

It isn't uncommon to see a large cross in the front yard of a house. No fewer than seven churches dominate the two main roads in the center of the small town of Minden. A sign advertises a pest control business and then displays a nod to a Bible verse: John 3:16. Sheriff's cruisers and ambulances proudly declare "In God We Trust."

When you ask residents if they can separate God from their daily lives, you get a resounding "No."

"You're asking me how is it that I can take the marrow out of my bone. It is so deeply steeped inside of who I am," Lee explains.

A group of women waiting for the coffee shop to open for their regular fellowship are happy to talk about their faith and prayer in school. But as the rain pours down and they cram into the covered doorway, they don't want to give their names, afraid of how it might impact their children in school with the lawsuit pending.

"If people are telling us, saying leave faith at the door, it just isn't that simple," one woman says. "It's what's in our hearts from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed. It isn't something we can turn off. And that's true for our children too."

The women agree it is a "touchy subject" right now. They acknowledge some of the messages on social media have been pretty blunt.

Some people have told the Coles they should just move out of town. They say they'll pray for Kaylee. And while there's bewilderment that one of their own would start this, there is also concern their town will not be understood as it comes under a national spotlight. A billboard near Lakeside High, on a main road between Minden and Sibley, used to display Biblical phrases. Now it declares, "ACLU is the Grinch that stole Christmas from Webster Schools."

A fight over freedom, and an admission

There is no question about the public nature of Christianity here. But tradition -- however long-standing -- doesn't make it right, or legal, Christy Cole says.

"I don't believe they've ever conformed to federal law here, and at this point it is just tradition just to completely defy it," she says.

The Webster Parish School District declined to comment on the allegations made by the Cole family and the ACLU. But they filed a response to the lawsuit denying some claims and admitting to others.

"A voluntary, student-led prayer was delivered in the morning at Lakeside," the district says, adding that the practice has been "discontinued." They admit a copy of the prayer was present next to a microphone in case students forgot the words. But they adamantly deny "their actions were unlawful or unconstitutional."

The district denies allegations about faith creeping into the classroom when it comes to teaching evolution in science class.

The district also says in court filings "that no prayers occurred at student assemblies, at pep rallies or at all of the athletic games." Videos posted on Facebook, however, show a young man in a football jersey leading a prayer as students in a packed gymnasium bow their heads. The caption to the video reads that the student "prayed for the Warrior team at the Pep Rally today."

"Y'all bow y'all's heads," the student says.

"Only you can do the impossible, for you're a mighty God and also a humble God," the student says in the video. "Win or lose or draw, we shall all turn our heads towards you."

The district also contends in court filings that presentations by groups in school time were solely for educational purposes and, if the speakers veered into Christian messages, it was outside their control.

The school does admit a teacher had the writings Kaylee Cole showed us about God and prayer on a classroom wall, but, they note, "these have been removed."

That isn't enough for Cole, nor the ACLU.

ACLU lawyer Bruce Hamilton says the goal is to get a permanent injunction against the school.

"Nothing prevents that practice from resuming at any time," lawyers for the Coles wrote in a court document responding to the school board. "More important, it is but one egregious example in a panoply of ongoing Establishment Clause violations."

A reckoning with the future in the 'buckle of the Bible Belt'

Sitting inside the popular Geaux Fresh restaurant in Minden, diners don't shy away from the controversy. They want to help explain.

Ron Anderson, the 60-year-old president of a nonprofit helping children in school, is having lunch with George E. French III, a retired hospital CEO.

They recall the times in their lives when prayer has been present -- always a blessing before a meal, before meetings, and at the hospital more times than French, now 70 years old, can count.

Anderson has lived in Webster Parish since his teens. He prays probably 20 times a day, and that's common. He wears his cross proudly outside his sweatshirt. And while his preference is to pray in private, silently, he agrees the lawsuit has sparked a good conversation about what happens when you reach the schoolhouse door.

The two men don't know what's going on inside the parish schools, but they are eager to explain their town.

"It's a cultural feature, it is just what you do," Anderson explains. "I don't think anyone is going out of their way to try and disrespect each other, or violate anybody's rights, but ... I call this the buckle of the Bible Belt, because that drives a lot of what we do."

Gail Coleman sent her four children through the Webster Parish schools and now works as a family transition and empowerment specialist for the Head Start Program. She believes prayer in the school grounded her children and all others that walked the halls, acting as a moral compass, keeping the moral fabric of society from fraying.

She says bluntly: "School minus prayer equals disaster."

A battleground ... before a wider war?

The questions spread far beyond this corner of Louisiana, and were raised by none other than President Donald Trump last summer.

"Schools should not be a place that drive out faith and religion, but that should welcome faith and religion with wide open, beautiful arms," Trump says during a Faith and Freedom Coalition conference. "It's time to put a stop to attacks on religion."

That's why this lawsuit has people in Webster Parish so concerned. They realize this could be a case that could have far-reaching implications.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry is certainly taking an interest. He doesn't shy away from his own faith -- when he looks up from his desk, he can see paintings he commissioned of Moses as the original lawgiver on the steps of the Supreme Court and of Jesus in a chamber of Congress.

Landry worked with Congressman Mike Johnson, who represents Northern Louisiana and knows many of the people in Webster Parish, to try to clear up any confusion, posting a document about God and prayer in public school.

"We believe that students needed to understand their basic rights as it related to the First Amendment and as it related to free speech and the free practice of their faith," Landry explains. "I think there's been a lot of misinformation out there, especially over the last couple of decades, that our faith is not something that we can freely exercise even if we're engaged in a government atmosphere, whether it be a public square or a public school."

That is all Greg Lee and others in Webster Parish say they want. To fight for their longstanding beliefs. For the rights and souls of their daughters and sons -- and America.

"If you begin to tell me that my children do not have the right to pray in school, then that's an attack upon the relationship I have with my God and the relationship that they have with our God," Lee explains.

Christy Cole wants people to know that while she is still a Christian who prays, she is a parent first who is looking to the future.

"I really hope that the harm, the damage that comes from these years of indoctrination, we can start reversing that in the future generations," Christy Cole says.

The school board, too, is looking to the future, and chose specific language in its court filing calling for the case to be dismissed.

"(We) PRAY that this Answer be deemed good and sufficient."

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