The Smith County Board of Education was recently approached about settling a lawsuit filed on November 18, 2019 by the ACLU on behalf of Smith County residents Kelly Butler and his two minor children, and Jason and Sharona Carr and their two minor children. The lawsuit makes allegations and asserts claims that the Board violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution through its “customs, policy and practice.” The Establishment Clause prohibits a governmental entity such as the Board from “establishing” a religion.
The Complaint filed to initiate the lawsuit contains 82 paragraphs of factual allegations. Through its investigation, the Board found no factual support for many of the allegations and denied the same. The Board determined, however, that some allegations did have factual support and potentially violated the requirements of the First Amendment as determined by the United States Supreme Court. Additionally, shortly after the filing of this lawsuit the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice on January 16, 2020, issued Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer and Religious Expression in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools. It could be argued the problematic allegations do not fully comply with that publication.
It was on the basis of these actions which constitute violations of the First Amendment and its desire to ensure that its students’ rights to freely exercise their religious beliefs continue to be protected, that the Board determined that it should engage in settlement discussions with the ACLU. The settlement discussions are directed at bringing the Board’s current practices into compliance with the mandates of the First Amendment and reducing its exposure to the increasing attorneys’ fees incurred by the ACLU for which the Board will be responsible at the conclusion of the lawsuit. Hopefully these negotiations will bring the lawsuit to a conclusion but will in no manner eliminate Constitutionally appropriate prayer in schools or infringe on the students’ rights to exercise their religious freedoms. Any agreement will comply with the current federal administration’s guidance.
The lawsuit is currently set for trial on May 25, 2021.