Sabine caves; but will it stick?

by Walter Pierce

The public school system in this Bible Belt parish in west Louisiana decided not to fight a lawsuit accusing it of unconstitutional religious practices.

File Photo by Robin May

A portrait of Jesus hangs above the main entrance at Negreet High School outside Many, La., in January.

The news trickled out over the weekend: the Sabine Parish School System signed off on a consent decree with the family of a Buddhist student who claimed their son had been harassed, belittled and subjected to religious discrimination; the school board, superintendent et al agreed to stop proselytizing pushing creationism in their public schools and to remove religious iconography from Negreet High School, the epicenter of the dispute - this despite the fact that soon after the lawsuit by Scott and Sharon Lane was filed in federal court in Shreveport in January, the school system released a press release saying it would "defend the lawsuit vigorously."

But the superintendent caved, perhaps realizing that the school system's defense was indefensible.

The consent decree requires the school system to remove religious images from campuses - specifically targeted were a portrait of Jesus hung above the main entrance at Negreet High, Bible verses on the walls and the use of the school's electronic marquee to scroll Bible verses. But according to Justin Harrison, the ACLU of Louisiana legal director, the school system evidently sensed it was lining up for a slaughter before signing the decree. "A lot of [the religious images] had been removed before the settlement was reached, but yes, our understanding is that those things have been removed and if not they will be very shortly," Harrison says.

The ACLU of Louisiana, Harrison adds, is confident the school system will abide by the deal: "There's continuing jurisdiction on the consent decree; basically the court has jurisdiction to enforce it for the next 10 years, and that's a little different from a simple settlement agreement in that all either party has to do if it feels the other is in violation of the consent decree is just notify the court and file a motion to enforce the decree," he explains. "Our clients' children are going to be going to that school for quite a few years to come, and so we feel like we'll have an idea of what's going on in Sabine Parish. And that's basically it - the court didn't appoint a monitor or anything like the way it might do in the Orleans Parish Prison or the New Orleans Police Department or in some much larger cases, but we feel like our clients will notify us if something is going on."

Read IND Monthly's February cover story, "City on a Hill," about the controversy in Sabine Parish here.