The most epic Culture War battle waged in a generation is threatening to erupt in a small town in the piney woods of rural west Louisiana.
The most epic Culture War battle waged in a generation is threatening to erupt in a small town in the piney woods of rural west Louisiana. By Walter Pierce
Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014
Photos by Robin May
The lobby at Negreet High School features several Biblical wall displays and also includes a portrait of Jesus over the entrance (above).
Scott Lane looks haggard and wary when he steps out of his small house on a winding cul-de-sac of mostly vacation homes on Toledo Bend outside Many, La. His week-old beard is flecked with gray, his hair mussed up. He's at once a bit surprised to see me and a bit surprised it's taken the media this long to knock on his door.
Lane and his family are plaintiffs in what promises to be a blockbuster fight with the local school system over what the Lanes allege is religious persecution meted out by a zealous science teacher who has the support not only of the school principal but the school system's superintendent as well.
The 47-year-old Lane won't talk on the record; he's been instructed not to by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union. He won't even agree to have his photograph taken. But he's a nice fellow who identifies as fiscally conservative and socially progressive - a Rockerfeller Republican if you will - and we talk for about 10 minutes anyway. All off the record. But that's more than long enough to understand that Lane didn't want this fight. In a small, Bible Belt town like Many, he and his family will become pariahs - the people who are against God. The son of a preacher, Scott Lane isn't against God. But he is against evangelical Christianity being force-fed to students in public schools - the central claim of the lawsuit. So fight he will.
The Negreet High electronic marquee scrolls Bible verses.
Many is practically indistinguishable from hundreds of other small towns in the rural South. The main drag through the town of 2,700, La. Highway 6 - it's called the Natchitoches Highway east of town, the Texas Highway to the west - runs all of three blocks through a downtown of early 20th century facades that have been repurposed into western stores, pawn shops, restaurants and whatnot. There's one traffic light. The decay is palpable yet quaint, familiar.
Many is the seat of Sabine Parish, and the federal lawsuit to which Scott Lane is party accuses the public school system there, along with the superintendent and the principal and a teacher at a high school outside of town, of a kind of evangelical fervor and intolerance that belongs in another era. The Great Awakening, maybe. Definitely pre-Scopes "Monkey Trial."
The ACLU of Louisiana brought the suit on behalf of Scott and Sharon Lane and their five children, specifically 6th grader C.C., an adopted child of mixed Thai heritage who is Buddhist. CC's mom, Sharon, became Buddhist about 14 years ago - a change in faith that helped fast-track her adoption (during a previous marriage) of C.C. from a Mormon mom and Thai father who was studying in Utah.
The suit seeks to stop the school system from harassing C.C. and promoting the Christian faith and to reimburse the family for the cost of driving the youngster to Many Middle School 25 miles away from their home.
From the Sabine Parish School Board website
According to the suit filed Jan. 22 in federal district court in Shreveport, Rita Roark, C.C.'s science teacher at Negreet High - a rural school that serves grades pre-kindergarten through 12th - is an out-and-proud young earth creationist who teaches her students that our planet was created by God 6,000 years ago, the Bible is "100 percent true" and evolution is impossible. The family also claims in the suit - and supporting documentation seems to prove - that Roark routinely dresses up her science tests with fill-in-the-blank questions like, "Isn't it amazing what ________ has made!!!!!!!" The "correct" answer for the blank is, obviously, "the Lord" or "God" and, according to the suit, when C.C. failed to provide the preferred answer he was belittled by Roark in front of classmates and told that Buddhism is "stupid."
The suit also claims that when the Lanes complained to parish Superintendent Sara Ebarb, the super's response was, "This is the Bible Belt." Ebarb, according to the suit, suggested C.C. change faiths or transfer to Many Middle where "there are more Asians."
The suit also says that Negreet High regularly promotes Christianity via classroom prayer and prayer at school events. Defendants in the suit are the Sabine Parish School Board, Ebarb, Roark and Negreet High Principal Gene Wright.
"Forcing your beliefs on another is not freedom; it is oppression."
- Scott Lane, plaintiff
The story about the Lanes' lawsuit appeared first at theind.com on the day it was filed. But other sites quickly began running with it, and the professional snark machine that is the Internet - yeah, yeah, we know, three fingers pointing back at us - raked Negreet and Roark over the coals of secular indignation.
Wonkette's headline two days later: "Helpful Louisiana Teacher Shares Good News Of Lord By Telling Buddhist Child He Is Stupid"
Raw Story's header the day before that: "Don't want to be hassled by creationist teacher? Give up Buddhism, Louisiana public school says"
Rita Roark's tests exhort students to honor God (above
mainstream science). When C.C., a Buddhist, first
encountered the question he failed to answer.
On a later test his answer, "Lord Boda" (sic), was
met with scorn and ridicule by Roark.
But even conservative sites like The Daily Caller couldn't soft-peddle the allegations, referring to the claims made against Negreet High School and Roark as "comically unconstitutional religious harassment."
But there's nothing comical about it - if the Lanes' claims are substantive - and there's at the very least corroborating evidence that the lawsuit's allegations are indeed on the level.
There's been some speculation in reporting on this story that the school system might take cover under the Louisiana Science Education Act, the 2008 law that allows educators to introduce into science class "supplemental" teaching materials that question evolution and climate change. The law was essentially written by creationists to enable creationists and their lab-coated cousins, proponents of Intelligent Design, to undermine the mainstream scientific consensus on Darwinian evolution.
But the Lanes make no reference to the LSEA in their suit, and this case of "comically unconstitutional religious harassment" clearly leaps far beyond school curricula and lands squarely at the feet of the First Amendment. Justin Harrison, the legal director for the ACLU of Louisiana, characterizes the LSEA issue as a "matter of strategy" and won't comment on whether it might play a role in the litigation. The ACLU is currently in a "holding pattern," as Harrison puts it, awaiting a hearing date for a preliminary injunction seeking an immediate halt to the school system's proselytizing and harassment.
Constitutional scholar Charles Haynes, in an interview about the suit with The Atlantic's Andrew Cohen, says he was stunned when he heard the accusations in the suit. "I can honestly say that the allegations in the case are among the most serious I have ever seen," says Haynes, adding that if the Lanes' claims are true, "the school district has no legal defense."
IND Monthly photographer Robin May and I make the three-hour drive northwest to Many on Monday, Jan. 27. The winter storm that closed schools in Lafayette for three days at the end of the month is about 12 hours away from Many, and the town's pace seems a bit more hurried than is probably normal. But Many also has the feel of a town circling the wagons, hunkering down for an invasion of satellite trucks and nosy reporters from the news networks. Residents and merchants are quick to smile, but they somehow - it's hard to put a finger on - seem to know that their little neck of the woods is about to become a front in the Culture War. None is willing to talk about the lawsuit, but everyone seems aware of it.
The owner of BJ's Grocery & Bait outside Many publicly
supports teacher Roark.
After a quick bite in town, we head to Negreet. An unincorporated community southwest of Many, Negreet is a scattering of homes and churches in these rolling, forested hills that dissolve into fingers of Toledo Bend, the sprawling reservoir and fishing mecca along the Louisiana-Texas border. On the way we pass BJ's Grocery & Bait on Hwy. 6. Out front is a readerboard sign with "GOD BLESS OUR TEACHERS" on the east side - the side you see when driving to Negreet from Many. The high school, which looks fairly new with its bright, red metal roof, appears out of nowhere as we navigate a curve on Hwy. 476. Trucks outnumber cars 3-to-1 in the parking lot.
And there, just as the lawsuit contends, is the electronic marquee for the school, scrolling through notices of weather cancellations and other mundane information followed by "IN ALL WAYS ACKNOWLEDGE GOD & HE WILL DIRECT THY PATH PROV. 3 V6 FCA MEMBERS" That would be the sixth verse of Proverbs 3 from the Holy Bible (and a reference to the school's chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes) - on the marquee of a public high school in the United States in January 2014. Fifty-plus years of constitutional law and U.S. Supreme Court rulings have not breached the piney-wood parapets of rural western Louisiana.
In the school office, a secretary who I imagine is happily married - with three kids whose first names start with the same letter - and goes to church every Sunday tells me Principal Wright "isn't available." She smiles nervously but nods in affirmation when I ask her if they've been getting a lot of media inquiries. But the smile also tells me she's been instructed to keep quiet. And she does. She takes my name and cell number. Wright never calls.
While I'm in the office, Robin snaps some photos in the cavernous lobby of more Bible verses posted on the walls and a portrait of Jesus - a painting presented to the school, we believe, by the 8th grade class that graduated last spring. The Christ portrait hangs above the exits from the lobby, so He is the last thing students see before heading home when the final bell rings.
We head back to Many to try to talk to the superintendent. On the way we stop in at BJ's Grocery & Bait. The proprietor, presumably BJ but he won't give his name or go on record, acknowledges that "GOD BLESS OUR TEACHERS" is indeed an attaboy for Rita Roark, who he says taught his own daughter and is "a good person." This is the Bible Belt he explains, echoing what Superintendent Ebarb allegedly told the Lanes, and folks are God-fearing. The lawsuit and the attention it's beginning to bring to his community is "sad." Like everyone else we've spoken to, he's friendly with a ready smile. When I pull out money to pay for my Dr. Pepper, he says, "A dollar will do," conjuring up images of Ike Godsey, the General Mercantile and John-Boy Walton.
More Bible verses and Christian iconography in the NHS lobby
At the Sabine Parish School Board office adjacent to Many Cemetery, another pleasant secretary informs me that Superintendent Ebarb is also unavailable. She too nods in affirmation when asked if they've been getting a lot of calls - with that same smile that says, "That's all you're getting out of me, mister."
She hands me a sheet with the official school system response: "The Sabine Parish School Board has only recently been made aware of the lawsuit filed by the ACLU. The lawsuit only represents one side's allegations and the board is disappointed that the ACLU chose to file suit without even contacting it regarding the facts.
"The school system recognizes the right of all students to exercise the religion of their choice and will defend the lawsuit vigorously."
She takes my name and cell number. Ebarb never calls.
Back near the Toledo Bend shore beneath the pine and gum trees, Scott Lane catches himself when he accidentally refers to his kids by first name instead of the initials used in the lawsuit to protect their identity. He's frustrated that he can't spill forth with details, because mixed with the trepidation about the Lanes becoming Many's Familia Non Grata is a simmering outrage.
He tells us little that isn't already in the lawsuit, but there's the look in his eye of a man who has a lot to say and is itching to say it.
In a personal account he wrote that was published to the ACLU's website on the day the suit was filed, Lane details the bewilderment he and his wife felt when they realized the superintendent of schools was willing to not only countenance the proselytizing and Christian cheerleading at Negreet High, but endorses them. (The suit alleges that Superintendent Ebard sent a memo to the administration at Negreet High applauding them for standing up for their faith and that the memo was read over the school's intercom system.)
"We don't begrudge others their right to their Christian faith," Lane writes. "But that's why the separation of church and state is so important: It gives us all the breathing room and freedom to believe what we want to believe and to practice those beliefs without undue influence or interference by the government. Forcing your beliefs on another is not freedom; it is oppression."