Arizona school district faces lawsuit for censoring Scripture during meetings
School board member sues after being told she can’t quote Bible verses
At the first school board meeting that Heather Rooks attended as an elected member of the board, she recited Joshua 1:9: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
Rooks took her seat on the Peoria Unified School District Board in Glendale, Ariz., in January 2023. The mother of four grew up in the Peoria district—one of the largest in the state, serving 36,000 students across 42 schools—and wanted to be a part of the board to make a difference for others. She regularly began her comments at the public school board meetings by quoting short Biblical passages.
“I would read a Scripture verse just to give me the strength and comfort and courage to make decisions in these board meetings,” said Rooks. “Praying to God and asking Him to give me those verses that can help me through those meetings … that’s the thing that was helping me.”
The board began to receive letters from anti-religious organizations, including the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), demanding the board stop Rooks’ readings. At a July 13 meeting, Rooks said she had received a letter from the district instructing her to stop quoting Bible verses because her actions reportedly violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
Rooks sued the district last week, arguing in the lawsuit that she “wants to be part of the longstanding tradition of government officials solemnizing public occasions” by quoting Scripture.
FFRF explained that a “concerned” district employee reported Rooks “has been using her position on the board to foist her personal religious beliefs upon district parents and community members,” according to an email FFRF sent to board members in May. FFRF argued that the establishment clause in the First Amendment “dictates that the government cannot in any way show favoritism toward religion,” according to its letter.
This is a wrong interpretation of the establishment clause, said Andy Gould, an attorney for First Liberty Institute, which represents Rooks.
“Public officials in this country literally for centuries have recited Scripture at official events, legislatures opened with prayer, so this is a part of the fabric of … our political tradition in this country,” Gould said.
At its inception, the clause was meant to prevent the government from interfering with the Church—not to isolate any mention of the Church from society, he said. Gould argued the clause needs to be considered along with its First Amendment counterparts, the free exercise and free speech clauses, which ensure Rooks has the freedom to express her religious views.
Gould added he’s a “little surprised” to see Rooks being censored as it is so common for American public officials to reference Scripture. In 2021, President Joe Biden quoted from Isaiah after withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan.
But Rooks’ censoring is not an isolated incident. FFRF has also targeted coaches at Auburn University in Alabama for participating in a mass baptism. On Sept. 12, thousands of people packed the university’s Neville Arena for a night of worship that several coaches had promoted. After the scheduled events that night, roughly 200 people were baptized. Head football coach Hugh Freeze baptized one of his players.
“Auburn University is a public university, not a religious one. It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for university employees to use their university position to organize, promote or participate in a religious worship event,” FFRF staff attorney Christopher Line wrote to Auburn University President Christopher B. Roberts on Sept. 19.
“Anti-religion groups in America can’t seem to grasp the concept that football coaches have constitutional rights,” First Liberty Institute said in a press release.
In 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a similar case involving the establishment clause. A high school football coach in Washington was fired in 2015 for praying at midfield following high school football games. Last year, in a 6-3 opinion, the court ruled that the First Amendment protected former Bremerton High School coach Joseph Kennedy’s right to pray.
While the school argued Kennedy violated the establishment clause, Justice Neil Gorsuch said the school had misinterpreted it as requiring them to ferret out religious speech, which it does not.
“This court, more than any court I can think of in my lifetime, has made it clear that the free exercise clause works with the establishment clause together and there is a lot of breathing room under that First Amendment,” Gould said in reference to both Kennedy’s and Rooks’ cases.
For now, Gould said that he advised Rooks to not read Scripture during the meetings while the case works through the courts. He hopes Rooks’ lawsuit will get to a preliminary hearing in the next three to six months.
“America has always been about freedom of our First Amendment right of being able to speak,” Rooks said. “It just didn’t seem like [the] country we were living in.”
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