A message from our Executive Director:
On behalf of Secular AZ, we find that the lawsuit filed by Heather Rooks against the Peoria School district is another in a long string of bullying behaviors aimed at intimidation of the Board, a usurpation of legitimate authority, and an enforcement of Christian nationalists’ dogma.
The plaintiff seems to have a difficult time with separation. She can’t separate church from state; she can’t separate herself from her role as a school board member; and she can’t separate fact from fiction.
No outside activists asked that the Constitution be upheld – that was Arizona groups representing Arizona citizens living in the Peoria district with children in those schools who may not be religious and who have a right to attend school events without being proselytized. Thirty percent of Americans identify as non-religious. (America’s Changing Religious Landscape, Pew Research Center, May 12, 2015). Twelve percent of Americans are atheist or agnostic, and another twelve percent are deistic, believing in a higher power but no personal God according to Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar.
Ms. Rooks did not read her scripture at the beginning of the meeting to fortify herself but if she feels the need to be fortified to attend a school board meeting, she can pray privately as the Supreme Court said in Kennedy v. Bremerton. Rooks is a school board member, not a legislator for which the Supreme Court rules for legislative prayer laid out in Town of Greece would be appropriate. Courts have continually ruled that prayer is not permissible at school board meetings because of the importance of maintaining secularism in schools and the risk of pressuring impressionable students, who often attend meetings. The fact that presidents and legislators reference scripture is irrelevant.
Rooks also cites Arizona Constitution Article 2 §6 about freedom of speech but does not mention that the provision also says, “being responsible for the abuse of that right” for which she has shown little aptitude. The protections of freedom from religion are stronger in Arizona those at the federal level but Rooks ignores Article 20 of the Arizona constitution that says:
First. Toleration of religious sentiment
First. Perfect toleration of religious sentiment shall be secured to every inhabitant of this state, and no inhabitant of this state shall ever be molested in person or property on account of his or her mode of religious worship, or lack of the same.
The Establishment Clause is an equal partner in the First Amendment protection of conscience. It is just as important to prohibit government mandated thought as it is to allow free thought. The very same people who oppose “government schools” do believe in “government prayer.”
As a private individual, Rooks is free to practice her religion as she sees fit. A.R.S §41-1493.01 (RFRA) says that a person can exercise religion as she chooses but only if she can show that such exercise is burdened, does RFRA come into effect. Does her religion mandate that she read scripture at school board meetings? If so, it is not a Christian religion as Matthew 6:6 says but when you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your father who is unseen. Then our Father ,who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
As a private individual, Rooks is free to practice as she sees fit. As a school board member, she must follow the law e.g. open meetings law, Establishment Clause, disclosure and conflict of interest laws, the district manual, oath of office, and the specific not general immunity given school boards in Arizona statutes.
In addition, Arizona law says that a school may not lay blame or judgment on any person because of who they are which is precisely what Rooks is doing with her recitation of verses that have attacked certain people and groups and that denigrate all non-religious students. Schools may not teach that one group is better than another because they believe in a certain religion or any at all.
In short, Rooks’ lawsuit is an attempt to force her religion onto children against the wishes of their parents. Religion should be taught at home by the parents not at a public-school board meeting by an unrelated person.
Jeanne Casteen is Executive Director of Secular AZ.
Jeanne Casteen, Secular AZ Executive Director
JEANNE CASTEEN has a bachelor’s degree in human communication and history from the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at ASU and a master’s in education, also from ASU. Jeanne has over 11 years of experience teaching in Maricopa County’s public schools. In 2011, Jeanne completed the Emerge Arizona program and in 2012 became a school board member of the Creighton School District. She served as Board President from 2016 through 2020. In 2020, Ms. Casteen ran for Maricopa County School Superintendent, and came within 12,000 votes of winning. She has been awarded the Arizona School Public Relations Association Award for Excellence in Advocacy and Political Contributions to Education as well as the Arizona School Board Association’s All-Arizona School Board Member Award.