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School to parents: Does your son have to be Buddhist?

Across the US, especially in the rural South, parents say their kids endure school-sanctioned religious activity

NEGREET, La. — Shortly after the start of the last school year, Sharon Lane said it became a fight to get her son out of the house.

“Every day, driving the same route … he would get upset and tell me, ‘Pull over, I’m going to throw up,’” Lane recalled. “What the kicker was is when he told me that he’d rather die than go to school.”

As their once well-adjusted son grew increasingly despondent, the Lanes were mystified. Then his stepsister Anna Lane, who was in the same science class, mentioned their tests.

Those tests routinely featured the question, “Isn’t it amazing what the _____ has made!!!” Fill in the word “Lord” and get extra credit.

She said she saw the science teacher stand over C.C. (“America Tonight” agreed not to us his real name) and berate him for not knowing what to put in the blank.

“She called him stupid," Anna said, "because he believed another religion and he didn’t know all about Christianity.”

Every year, the ACLU receives dozens of reports from across the country of public schools possibly violating the separation of church and state. And more often than not, according to the ACLU, it’s the activity of evangelical Christians that treads constitutional lines.

‘You are in the Bible Belt’

Along the rural roads of Sabine Parish, Louisiana, which hugs the Texas border, signs of deep Christian faith are everywhere. The town boasts more than 100 churches, serving just 24,000 people. At Negreet High School, a public K–12 school in Sabine, C.C. stuck out like a sore thumb. The sixth-grader was a Buddhist of Thai descent, adopted by his Buddhist mother when she lived in Utah during a previous marriage.

Troubled by the science tests, Scott Lane, C.C.’s stepfather, decided to do some detective work.  He says Negreet often resembled more of a Sunday school than a public school. Prayer at mealtime was commonplace. Bible verses scrolled on an electronic marquee in front of the school. Christian-themed posters adorned the school’s walls. The Lanes said they got the sense the school was systematically proselytizing to its students. 

“It’s an abusive situation,” said Lane. “When I send my kids to school, I’m expecting them to receive an education, not an indoctrination.”

The parents said the last straw came when the principal read a letter over the school’s P.A. system, praising students for their religious values. They said the message from both the community — and the school district — was loud and clear: If you don't like it, leave.

When they expressed their concerns to the superintendent, the Lanes said her first response was to point out where they lived.

“I said, ‘We live in the United States of America … This is not a totally different country,’” Sharon Lane remembered. “And she goes, ‘But you are in the Bible Belt.’”

For teens who differ from their peer group, fitting in can be one of the most challenging parts of growing up. C.C. faced this when his Buddhist beliefs were challenged in a school that praised students for their Christian values.
William P. Cannon/AP

According to the Lanes, the superintendent went on to add that if the Lanes lived in a foreign country, they'd have to get used to its religion.

When they explained that their son was adopted and raised Buddhist, Sharon Lane remembers the superintendent pointedly saying, "Does he have to be Buddhist?"

Fed up, the Lanes decided to sue the school district.

“Part of religious liberty is not only the right to practice your faith, but it’s the right to be free from government’s influence on your faith,” said Heather Weaver, a senior attorney with the ACLU and one of the attorneys who represented the Lanes. She said Negreet officials tried to make the school a "Constitution-free zone."

Sara Ebarb, the superintendent, declined America Tonight’s interview request. Messages to the science teacher and the former principal of Negreet went unanswered. However, in court documents they deny that they tried to impose religious beliefs on students.

In a statement, the Sabine Parish School Board says it is now complying with federal law, adding “[We] are … moving forward, focused on the education of our students. It is our strong desire to provide all students with a high quality education in a positive learning environment.”

(Editor's note: The full statement is below. The ACLU maintains it did have viable claims against all the named individuals.)

Losing faith

Negreet isn’t the only school where students were reportedly administered a dose of religion. At one school in South Carolina, the ALCU says the principal encouraged a well-known Christian rapper named B-SHOC and a minister to visit. For those who refused to attend, the school’s detention room was waiting.

Jordan Anderson, a sixth grader, was in the stands that day. An atheist, Anderson raised an objection to the rally. A teacher suggested he keep his views to himself.

Part of the presentation included a fake $1 million bill featuring religious verses warning students they could go to hell. 

Jordan’s father Jonathan Anderson said the principal was unapologetic.

“When Jordan told me about this, I was absolutely blown away that they would take it that far,” he said, adding that school was already a horrible experience for his son, with classmates praying over him on the school bus, hitting him and threatening to beat him up.

Like the Lanes, the Andersons decided to sue the school. It’s now operating under a consent decree, where it's pledged to end such activity.

“A lot of the school officials don’t think they are going to get caught,” said Weaver, the ACLU attorney. “And they often don’t because a lot of times, the student of minority faith or belief is not willing to speak up or report what is going on.”

The cover of the Museum of the Bible curriculum.

In some instances, there are well-organized groups lobbying teachers to introduce Christian-themed study into the classroom. The Museum of the Bible is the most prominent. Earlier this year, it unveiled a Bible study curriculum for high school students billed as “constitutionally sound, despite the fact that it states that humanity will “suffer” if it ignores God’s rules.

Steve Green, chairman of the Museum of the Bible, is also president of Hobby Lobby, the company that sued to be exempted from the Affordable Care Act’s birth control mandate. According to press accounts, Green said he hopes to get his Bible curriculum in thousands of schools within three years.

As for the Lanes, the Sabine Parish School Board settled with them earlier this year, agreeing to end any school-sanctioned Christian activity. C.C. is now at a new school and doing better. But the cost on the family has been high. In sticking up for her brother, Anna lost friends. Sharon Lane said strangers menaced her as she was doing yard work.

The Lanes said they've lost a little faith in a community that allowed this to happen. They sometimes wonder whether the superintendent was right. Maybe they would be better off living somewhere else.

“There were times when I felt: ‘How could I do this to him? How could I put him in this situation?’” Sharon Lane said. “He’s at an age where he needs friends and to be accepted. And he asked several times, ‘Can I just go back to Utah?’ … That was one of the hardest times of my life.”

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