The parents of nine Katy Independent School District students filed a civil rights lawsuit against the district Monday, alleging religious discrimination and “challenging the defendants’ perpetual efforts to ban all religious expression, exercise and acknowledgment of the Christian religion from KISD schools.”
The suit was filed on behalf of the parents by lawyers for Liberty Legal Institute of Plano, which says it specializes in cases involving “religious freedoms and the First Amendment” of the U.S. Constitution.
In connection with the suit, Katy ISD also was hit with a temporary restraining order saying that if students choose to exchange valentines or Valentine’s Day candy containing religious messages, the district must allow it.
The school district acknowledged it stands accused in the suit of “engaging in a number of practices hostile to religion,” but added “At no time has it been the official policy of Katy ISD to suppress a student’s right of freedom of speech or religious expression, nor has it ever been the intent of the district to suppress such expression.”
The suit states that Katy ISD school personnel and administrators are engaging in “viewpoint discrimination,” and have “retaliated against students and parents who have dared to question defendants’ discriminatory practices.”
The suit names Pattison Elementary Principal Debbie Barker, music teacher Sue Orrell and Katy ISD itself as defendants. Plaintiffs include parents Blake and Dawn Pounds, Robin Geddes, John and Cynthia Gualy, Greg and Amie Jones, and Jena Tredway, on behalf of themselves and the nine children.
Kelley Shackleford, chief counsel for Liberty Legal Institute, said the Katy ISD parents and children have been subjected to “a litany of incidents” involving religious discrimination and civil rights violations since 2001.
Among incidents cited in the suit and accompanying affidavits are the following:
→ “After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, my class discussed them during class time,” 9-year-old Haley Pounds said in her affidavit, describing a kindergarten class taught by Angel Bateman. “Ms. Bateman asked us why we thought it happened. I answered Ms. Bateman’s question by saying, ‘God allowed it to happen.’ In response, Ms. Bateman told me that I am not allowed to talk about God at school.”
→ “In December 2004, Haley came home crying, saying that Dr. Sue Orrell, the music teacher, made her sing Chanukah songs against her will,” Dawn Pounds said in her affidavit.
→ “On Dec. 14, 2005, Cynthia Gualy and I approached Principal Debbie Barker and asked why she would not allow any classes to have a Christmas party,” Dawn Pounds’ affidavit states. Among other things, Barker said it’s “because of the Christians who called me at home on Christmas Eve in 2002 complaining that the Christmas tree was further from the door than the menorah.”
→ “In the 2004-2005 school year, I was in first grade at Pattison Elementary School,” 8-year-old Kendall Pounds said in an affidavit. “In April 2005, we had a class discussion on Easter. Ms. Argo asked us what we thought of when we think of Easter. Some kids said things like ‘eggs’ or ‘bunnies.’ Rachel said ‘Jesus.” Ms. Argo said that you are not allowed to talk about Jesus in the classroom.”
→ “In art class, students received a packet to order from a national fundraising company various pre-printed holiday cards and bookmarkers which could be customized with the students’ own artwork,” Louisiana attorney J. Michael Johnson said in an affidavit. “However, item #F, which included the language, “And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus; for He shall save his people from their sins. – Matthew 1:21,” was blacked out by school officials. While the students’ option to choose this selection was eliminated, options with representations of other religions and sects were made available.”
→ “During the week of Jan. 24, 2003, I was informed..that Principal Barker gave the second grade homeroom mothers’ group strict parameters regarding the upcoming Valentine’s Day functions at the school,” Johnson’s affidavit states. “Specifically, no ‘religious’ items or symbols were to be allowed.”
Shackleford said children named in the suit had no particular plans to distribute valentines with religious messages, but said his group decided to file the suit and seek the injuntion on Monday “because we’re running into Valentine’s Day.”
Attorneys for the parents “went to the school’s attorney first, and asked for an agreed-to injunction” to specifically allow children to distribute religious valentines, but the district’s attorney declined, Shackleford said. So the Liberty Legal Institute lawyers sought an injunction in the 133rd district, which was granted.
“Because there was no real dispute about what would be allowed to happen tomorrow, the judge entered the TRO, which is good from today until February 27, 2006,” Katy ISD said in a prepared statement. “The district believes that it is unfortunate that neither the plaintiffs nor their attorneys ever attempted to contact the school district to discuss this matter prior to filing the lawsuit.”
Beyond a four-paragraph prepared statement, Katy ISD officials did not comment on the suit or restraining order.
It’s clear from exhibits in the suit that the issue has been percolating behind the scenes for some time, despite the district’s contention they weren’t previously contacted.
For instance, exhibits include a letter dated Dec. 19, 2002, in which an organization called the Alliance Defense Fund writes to Principal Barker “to notify the school of its unlawful denial of their children’s rights to engage in religious expression on school property, and to formally request that Pattison Elementary immediately cease and desist violating their First Amendment rights.”
“The thing that’s so bad is, a lot of times these kids go home crying. These are very young, impressionable kids,” Shackleford said. “And when they get (verbally) whacked for mentioning God, it has a big impact on them.”