FORT WORTH, Texas — A prominent humanist organization has filed a lawsuit against a Texas school district on behalf of a former student who takes issue with the practice of presenting Christian prayers at board meetings.
The American Humanist Association (AHA) filed suit against the Birdville Independent School District earlier this month on behalf of 20-year-old Isaiah Smith, who believes that the district is wrongfully endorsing Christianity through the invocations.
According to the suit, district officials select students to pray, who present invocations that are “often Christian and make specific references to Jesus and Christ.”
“A reasonable observer would conclude that defendants’ actions in inviting school children to deliver prayers at Board Meetings to be an endorsement of religion generally, and of Christianity specifically,” the complaint reads.
Smith says that the prayers make him feel like an outsider at the meetings, which he says he attended as a student and continues to attend as an alumnus.
“Plaintiff Smith considers the school board’s prayers to be divisive and exclusionary, leaving him to conclude that he is unwelcome at School Board meetings and a political outsider in his own community,” the suit explains.
The former student also cites an incident that made headlines in 2013 when he was suspended from school for ripping pages of Leviticus out of his Bible during Spanish class. As previously reported, Smith was advised that he was causing a disruption to the learning environment by tearing up his Bible in class, and was told that he could carry his Bible in school if he wished, but could not rip pages out of it.
At that time, Smith suggested that he considered himself to be a Christian.
“At my high school, some kids like to say that being gay is a sin and that you can’t be gay and Christian,” he told the Star-Telegram. “I wanted to bring my Bible to school and interpret the books of Leviticus and Romans because they are often used to bully gay people.”
AHA asserts that Smith’s suspension—which was later expunged—and the prayers presented at board meetings “are indicative of [the district’s] broader policy, practice and custom of favoring Christianity over all other religions and favoring religion over non-religion.”
The organization is now seeking a declaration from the court that the district’s practices violate the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
It is also requesting an injunction against all prayers at any school events—including board meetings—and punitive damages from each of the school members that participate in the prayers “for [their] intentional, knowing, or reckless disregard of [Smith’s] constitutional rights.”
The school district has not yet commented on the matter.