Settlement reached in ACLU-School Board Lawsuit

September 15, 2020

On November 19 of last year, Kelly Butler and Sharona & Jason Carr, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), filed a legal complaint against the Smith County Board of Education for the promotion of religion in the school system.

The original lawsuit filed by Butler and Carr alleges that Smith County school officials “routinely promoted and inculcated Christian religious beliefs by sponsoring religious activities and conveying religious messages to students” at Smith County High School and Smith County Middle School.

We previously reported that a preliminary injunction had been issued, and a possible settlement was discussed by the Board of Education at their meeting on August 18th. According to a Final Consent Decree and Order filed in Federal Court, the parties entered into a voluntary settlement on September 14, 2020. In the settlement, the Board of Education admits to certain allegations including endorsing or promoting religion and coercing religious exercise either directly or indirectly, in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The Permanent Injunction includes the following restrictions:

  • School officials are prohibited from promoting, advancing, endorsing, participating in, or causing prayers during or in conjunction with school events for any school within the School District
  • School officials in their official capacity are prohibited from planning, organizing, financing, promoting, or otherwise sponsoring in whole or in part a religious service.
  • The Defendants are prohibited from permitting school officials at any school within the School District to promote their personal religious beliefs to students in class or during or in conjunction with a school event
  • Private, non-school sponsored materials may be made available to students as part of a neutral limited or other public forum that may be used by outside groups to distribute materials.
  • School officials are prohibited from taking retaliatory action against Plaintiffs or any member of their family for bringing this lawsuit or otherwise objecting to unconstitutional practices.

In order to ensure enforcement of the injunction, the order states that all current school officials and all persons who later become school officials while it is in effect shall be provided a copy of the injunction and a process for the investigations of complaints regarding school officials’ promotion of religion must be established. Faculty training and education, including “the psychological and developmental impact of religious discrimination on students” is also required.

The Plaintiffs were awarded damages of $1.00 each, and the Board of Education is liable for the Plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees and costs.

The ACLU of Tennessee issued a press release about the court order and settlement. In the release, Kelly Butler said, “I’m relieved the school district recognized that its widespread promotion of religion was unconstitutional. My children, and all children, deserve an education that is free from the type of religious coercion that our family has suffered.”

Also, in the release, Hedy Weinberg, ACLU of Tennessee Executive Director, stated, “Families should be making the decisions about whether and how to educate their children about religion, not public schools. Today’s consent decree ensures that the Smith County schools will be focused on providing a quality education to all students, regardless of their religious beliefs.”