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Small Louisiana town engulfed in Church/State battle over religion and public schools

The following article appears in The Independent, a newspaper for Lafayette, Louisiana. Located in South Louisiana, Lafayette is about 120 miles from Sabine Parish, Louisiana, where this epic battle is unfolding.

by Walter Pierce, Editor of The Independent (Lafayette)

A sign outside a grocery and bait store in Many, La. in support of Rita Roark, the Sabine Parish teacher at the center of a federal lawsuit over alleged religious instruction in a public school science class.

Scott Lane looks haggard and wary when he steps out of his small house on a winding cul-de-sac of mostly vacation homes on Toledo Bend outside Many, La. His week-old beard is flecked with gray, his hair mussed up. He's a bit surprised it's taken the media this long to knock on his door.

Lane and his family are plaintiffs in what promises to be a blockbuster fight with the local school system over what the Lanes allege is religious persecution at one public school — persecution meted out by a science teacher who has the support not only of the school principal but the superintendent as well.

Lane won't talk on the record; he's been instructed not to do so by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). He won't even consent have his photograph taken. But he's a nice fellow who identifies as fiscally conservative and socially progressive — a Rockefeller Republican if you will — and he talks for about 10 minutes anyway off the record. But that's more than long enough to understand that Lane didn't want this fight. In a small Bible Belt town like Many, he and his family will become pariahs — the people who are against God.

The son of a preacher, Lane isn't against God. But he is against evangelical Christianity being force-fed to students in public schools — the central claim of the lawsuit. So fight he will.

Many is indistinguishable from hundreds of other small towns in the rural South. It's near the Louisiana-Texas border, midway between Lake Charles and Shreveport. The main drag, La. Highway 6 — it's called the Natchitoches Highway east of town, the Texas Highway to the west — runs all of three blocks through a downtown of early 20th-century facades that have been repurposed into Western stores, pawn shops, restaurants and whatnot. There's one traffic light; the population is 2,700. It's the seat of Sabine Parish.

The ACLU of Louisiana brought the suit on behalf of Scott and Sharon Lane and their five children, specifically sixth-grader C.C., an adopted child of mixed Thai heritage who is Buddhist. CC's adoptive mom, Sharon, became Buddhist about 14 years ago — a change in faith that helped fast-track C.C.'s adoption (during a previous marriage) from a Mormon mother and Thai father who was studying in Utah.

The suit seeks to stop the school system from harassing C.C. and promoting the Christian faith and to reimburse the family for the cost of driving the youngster to Many High School, 25 miles away from their home.

According to the suit filed Jan. 22 in U.S. District Court in Shreveport, Rita Roark — C.C.'s science teacher at Negreet High School — is a "young earth" creationist who teaches her students that the earth was created by God 6,000 years ago, the Bible is "100 percent true" and evolution is impossible.

The family also claims in the suit that one of Roark's science tests included the fill-in-the-blank question, "Isn't it amazing what ____ has made!!!!!!!" The "correct" answer for the blank is, obviously, "the Lord" or "God," and a copy of the test was filed as evidence in the suit.

According to the suit, when C.C. failed to provide the preferred answer he was belittled by Roark in front of classmates and told that Buddhism is "stupid." The suit also claims that when the Lanes complained to parish Superintendent Sara Ebarb, her response was, "This is the Bible Belt."

Ebarb, according to the suit, suggested C.C. change faiths or transfer to Many High where "there are more Asians."

The suit also says that Negreet — a rural school that serves grades pre-kindergarten through 12th — regularly promotes Christianity via classroom prayer and prayer at school events.

Named as defendants: the Sabine Parish School Board, Ebarb, Roark and Negreet High Principal Gene Wright.

The story about the Lanes' lawsuit appeared first at on the day it was filed. But other sites quickly began running with it. Wonkette's headline two days later: "Helpful Louisiana Teacher Shares Good News Of Lord By Telling Buddhist Child He Is Stupid."

Raw Story's header the day before that: "Don't want to be hassled by creationist teacher? Give up Buddhism, Louisiana public school says." Even conservative-leaning websites like The Daily Caller couldn't soft-pedal the allegations, referring to the claims made against Negreet High School and Roark as "comically unconstitutional religious harassment."

But there's nothing comical about it — if the Lanes' claims are substantive — and there's at the very least corroborating evidence that the lawsuit's allegations have some merit.

Some have speculated that the school system might take cover under the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), the 2008 law that allows educators to introduce into science class "supplemental" teaching materials that question evolution and climate change. But the Lanes make no reference to the LSEA in their suit.

Justin Harrison, legal director of the ACLU of Louisiana, characterizes the LSEA issue as a "matter of strategy" and won't comment on whether it might play a role in the litigation. The ACLU is currently in a "holding pattern," as Harrison puts it, awaiting a hearing date for a preliminary injunction seeking an immediate halt to the school system's proselytizing and harassment.

In an interview about the suit with The Atlantic's Andrew Cohen, Constitutional scholar Charles Haynes says he was stunned when he heard the accusations. "I can honestly say that the allegations in the case are among the most serious I have ever seen," Haynes said, adding that if the Lanes' claims are true, "The school district has no legal defense."

Many has the feel of a town circling the wagons, hunkering down for an invasion of satellite trucks and nosy reporters from the news networks. Residents and merchants are quick to smile, but they somehow seem to know that their little neck of the woods is about to become an epicenter of the culture war. No one is willing to talk about the lawsuit, but everyone seems aware of it.

Negreet is an unincorporated community southwest of Many — a scattering of homes and churches amid rolling, forested hills that dissolve into fingers of Toledo Bend, the sprawling reservoir and fishing mecca along the Louisiana-Texas border. Out front of BJ's Bait & Grocery on Hwy. 6 is a readerboard sign with "GOD BLESS OUR TEACHERS" on the east side — the side you see when driving to Negreet from Many.

Trucks outnumber cars three-to-one in the school parking lot. And there, just as the lawsuit contends, is the electronic marquee for the school, scrolling through notices of weather cancellations and other mundane information followed by the message "IN ALL WAYS ACKNOWLEDGE GOD & HE WILL DIRECT THY PATH PROV. 3 V6 FCA MEMBERS."

That's Proverbs 3:6 from the Bible (and a reference to the school's chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes) — on the marquee of a public high school in the United States in January 2014.

In the school office, a secretary says Principal Wright "isn't available," smiling nervously and nodding in affirmation when asked if they've been getting a lot of media inquiries. She takes my name and cellphone number. Wright never calls.

In the school's main lobby, more Bible verses are posted on the walls along with a portrait of Jesus Christ. The portrait hangs above the exits from the lobby, so He is the last thing students see before heading home.

At BJ's Bait & Grocery, the proprietor won't give his name or go on record, but he acknowledges that "GOD BLESS OUR TEACHERS" is indeed an attaboy for Rita Roark, who he says taught his daughter and is "a good person."

This is the Bible Belt, he explains, echoing what Superintendent Ebarb allegedly told the Lanes, and folks are God-fearing. The lawsuit and the attention it's beginning to bring to his community is "sad."   

At the Sabine Parish School Board office adjacent to Many Cemetery another pleasant secretary says Ebarb also is unavailable. She provides a sheet of paper with the official school system response:

"The Sabine Parish School Board has only recently been made aware of the lawsuit filed by the ACLU. The lawsuit only represents one side's allegations and the board is disappointed that the ACLU chose to file suit without even contacting it regarding the facts.

"The school system recognizes the right of all students to exercise the religion of their choice and will defend the lawsuit vigorously."

Ebarb never calls, either.

Back near the Toledo Bend shore, beneath the pine and gum trees, Scott Lane catches himself when he accidentally refers to his kids by first name instead of the initials used in the lawsuit to protect their identity. He says little that isn't already in the lawsuit, but there's the look in his eye of a man who has a lot to say and is itching to say it.

In a personal account he wrote that was published to the ACLU's website on the day the suit was filed, Lane details the bewilderment he and his wife felt when they realized the superintendent of schools was willing not only to countenance the proselytizing and Christian cheerleading at Negreet, but endorse them. The suit also alleges that Ebard sent a memo to the administration at Negreet applauding them for standing up for their faith — and that the memo was read over the school's intercom system.

"We don't begrudge others their right to their Christian faith," Lane writes. "But that's why the separation of church and state is so important: It gives us all the breathing room and freedom to believe what we want to believe and to practice those beliefs without undue influence or interference by the government. Forcing your beliefs on another is not freedom; it is oppression."

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