DAILY SIGNAL: School Board Member Sues for Right to Recite Bible Verses

Since she began serving on her local school board in Arizona in January, Heather Rooks has made it a practice to begin her meeting comments by reading a Scripture verse she found encouraging.

Rooks says citing Scriptures such as Isaiah 41:10—“Do not fear for I am with you; Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God”—served as an inspiration to her.

“I continued to do it, because it really gave me a lot of strength and courage, and just really brought me peace while I’m up there making those big decisions when it comes to children,” she says.

But it did not take long before the mother of four was told she had to stop the practice.

Rooks’ Scripture reading drew objection from inside and even outside the school district, and she received a “cease and desist” letter from a secular organization that told her she had to stop her practice because it violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. After receiving the letter, Rooks contacted First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based conservative law firm specializing in religious freedom.

Rooks’ actions are “clearly within the framework of legislative acknowledgements of religion,” says Hiram Sasser, Rooks’ attorney.

Of behalf of Rooks, First Liberty Institute has served the Peoria Unified School Districtin Glendale, Arizona, with a lawsuit holding that it’s within the school board member’s rights to read Scripture at the meetings.

Rooks and Sasser join “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss the lawsuit and explain why citing Scripture at a school board meeting is not a violation of the establishment clause.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:

Virginia Allen: It is my pleasure today to be joined by Heather Rooks. She is a wife, a mom, and a school board member out in Arizona. And we are also joined today by Hiram Sasser. He is an attorney with First Liberty Institute. Thank you both so much for being here.

Hiram Sasser: Well, thanks for having us.

Heather Rooks: Thank you.

Allen: Heather, I want to start with your story and just laying out some context for the situation that you’re currently finding yourself in.

You became a member of the Peoria school board in Arizona back in January of this year. And each school board member, during school board meetings, you have a time to give some comments, give some remarks. And you made the decision that you wanted to, at every school board meeting, open up those remarks by quoting some Scripture. And you did that for quite some time until you were told that you were not allowed to do that anymore. Just explain what happened, if you would.

Rooks: So, our first governing board meeting was in January of this school year, and I opened up my board comments with thanking the community and the parents and everybody’s involvement in that process. And I quoted a Scripture verse. It just was speaking to me at the time with God, and it really sat well with me at that time.

So I continued to do it because it really gave me a lot of strength and courage and just really brought my peace while I’m up there making those big decisions when it comes to children. And so that’s just kind of what I started doing as a first-time school board member.

Allen: And then, when were you told and what was the reason given for when someone else on that school board said, “Actually, you can’t quote Scripture”?

Rooks: We were told, it was actually the whole board, we were told that we weren’t allowed to do that. It was probably around June, July, somewhere in there that we were told not to. And the reason they gave was the establishment clause. And I just remember thinking, like, “Oh my goodness, this is crazy.” I was like, “This is America. I don’t understand how that can be.”

And so I had reached out to First Liberty Institute and they partnered with Hiram’s law firm in Texas. And so it just was really nice to have that help from the legal team.

Allen: And Hiram, we’re going to pull you in here in a second and get your legal expertise on this. But Heather, which Scripture verse were you quoting? Was it a different one every board meeting? Was it the same verse?

Rooks: It was a different one each board meeting. It was just one that kind of God spoke to me to say at each meeting to just kind of give me that courage, the calmness, that he’s got me through these difficult decisions that I’m making because they’re children, that’s important. And so it was different ones. I know the first one I read in January was Joshua 1:9, and that it really gave me his strength, his courage to be up there as a board member and to make those kinds of decisions.

Allen: Hard decisions that you make for your own kids, which we’re hearing a little bit in the background, I love that.

Rooks: Yes.

Allen: As a mom, it’s so important to have moms on our school boards because you-all, you’re in the middle of it and you have a pulse on what our kids actually need on a day-to-day basis. It’s critical.

Hiram, I want to turn to you for a second. So, Heather was told, because of the establishment clause that she can’t quote Scripture at school board meetings. From a legal perspective, what’s your analysis on that?

Sasser: Well, it’s kind of funny because this is all taking place after the Coach [Joe] Kennedy case. And for years and years, for 50 years, there was a case on the books called Lemon v. Kurtzman, and all we heard was that, well, if anything endorses religion, if the government or any government official endorses religion, basically acknowledging that it’s good or in some way just by participating or doing something, just any kind of “endorsement of religion,” that was bad and that was a violation.

So most school district lawyers, their default response anytime they were dealing with religious speech in schools was to censor the speech. They thought that that was sort of the most prudent approach. But now, after the Coach Kennedy win, and that destroyed Lemon v. Kurtzman, and now we have a new test, which is basically asking, “Is the government making anybody do anything?” The coercion test. And we also have the history and traditions test. “Well, what would our Founding Fathers think about this?”

So given that Coach Kennedy won his right to be able to pray on the 50-yard line after the games, but it changed the dynamic for all of these establishment clause cases. And so, now the new dynamic is that whenever they’re dealing with religious speech, they should ask the question, “We’re going to accommodate it, unless … ” So before it was, “We’ll censor it unless … ” And now it’s supposed to be, “We’ll accommodate it unless … ”

And here it’s just reading Bible verses. We probably didn’t even have to have Coach Kennedy on the books for this one to prevail because Heather is a legislator and legislative prayer has been happening ever since the Continental Congress. So we’re in pretty good shape, and I really just don’t understand why the school district is trying to make hay over this when they’re on really thin ice.

Allen: So then what is your argument before the court?

Sasser: I think the argument is that this is clearly within the framework of legislative acknowledgements of religion. This is actually something short of a prayer, which is already, the Supreme Court has said time and time again over multiple decades that beginning legislative sessions with prayer is perfectly fine.

This is actually two steps removed from past Supreme Court wins, even when Lemon was on the books. And that is the way it’s removed, is that this is just one board member saying it during their personal board time, so she’s actually not acting on behalf of the school district or the board. And then, secondly, it’s not a prayer, it’s just a Bible verse. So this is probably an easily won case or should have been or should be under the old standard.

Under the new standard, I just don’t understand where the school district is coming from. Obviously, you can’t guarantee an outcome with judges. They’re people and sometimes cases can take on odd lives, but this seems to be a pretty straightforward situation and I just don’t really understand where they’re going on this issue. I don’t understand why they think the school district is responsible for what one board member is saying during their personal board commentary.

Allen: You mentioned Coach Kennedy and the impact that his case has had within the legal system and specifically around the understanding of freedom of religion and especially within our school systems. Here at The Daily Signal, we’ve been really privileged to cover Coach Kennedy’s case. We actually just had him on the podcast recently, so I encourage our listeners to check out that interview. Him talking about his new book “Average Joe.” But Hiram, this case it’s ongoing. Where do things stand right now?

Sasser: Well, right now we have sued and they’ve been served, and so they have an opportunity to respond in an answer. And then we want to try to get to a resolution as soon as possible.

I mean, this has been going on for some months now, and we want to get some clarity. We think this is pretty straightforward. There’s not a lot of discussions about what’s really happening, it’s just, what’s the law on this? I certainly hope it doesn’t take eight years like the Coach Kennedy case. That was terrible that we had to take that long, but obviously, ultimately winning.

My hope is that very shortly we’ll beget, the school district will come to their census and realize that this case is probably nine times easier for us than the Coach Kennedy case was in terms of where the law is already and it’s just not worth fighting for them.

Allen: Heather, as the case moves forward, you’re continuing to serve on the school board, correct?

Rooks: Correct. Yeah.

Allen: And why did you originally decide that you wanted to run for school board?

Rooks: Well, honestly, before COVID and everything, I didn’t know what a school board was. And so I started to get involved with a group of moms. We started to understand what the school board does, and we didn’t realize how much of an impact they have on our children’s education. And so we started to hear from other parents. We started to hear from students and staff.

So I just prayed to God, I was like, “What do you want me to do? I’ve never done this before.” And he really, I think, opened that door and really encouraged me to take on such a big, important role to take on for children’s education. And so that’s pretty much why I got involved and I am very thankful for everybody’s help and for this opportunity.

Allen: And how many kids do you have in the school system?

Rooks: I have four kids in the school system.

Allen: Wow, OK. So yes, very, very involved.

Rooks: Yeah.

Allen: I mean, you’re on the school board, you’re a mom, you’re a wife, you’re busy. Why, though, is it worth it to you to say, “No, I’m going to fight for this, to be able to quote Scripture at a school board meeting, and I’m going to take the time to fight this legal battle”?

Rooks: I think it’s important to me because it goes back to that saying his words out loud at these board meetings when I’m making such big decisions. Saying those words, it really gives me that strength to do these type of roles. And if that isn’t there, then where does it go? I mean, that just disappears then, being able to do that.

And so I think it’s really important to seek legal help and have that opportunity to see, like Hiram said, what is the law? Because it just is mind-blowing to me that that is being pushed down, that you can’t do that, that you can’t say a verse to give you that strength when you’re in such an important role that makes big decisions, especially when it comes to children. So that’s why I think it’s an important thing to do.

Allen: Hiram, looking at this case and moving forward, are there any specific challenges that you and your team at First Liberty Institute are foreseeing?

Sasser: Well, I think the biggest challenge that we always have is that at First Liberty we’re client first and cause second. So our goal, like our goal with the Coach Kennedy case, was we just wanted to drag them to the negotiating table. And obviously, we failed, for eight years we failed and had to slug it out all the way to the Supreme Court. Our goal is to get the school district in a room and just get this resolved and be able to move on. That’s the goal.

Whether we will be able to accomplish that is largely dependent upon them, but I sure hope that this school district and other school districts across the country sort of received the message on the Coach Kennedy case that this is not a good idea to fight over these issues, especially now that the law has been clarified. And let’s just come to the table and get this resolved.

It’s really not that big of a deal. From the school district’s perspective, why do they care that Heather is reading a Bible verse during her personal commentary time, the board comment time? I don’t understand why they care. There’s so many things, there’s so many challenges.

Not to step on Heather’s toes in terms of her campaign and why she was there, but I mean, I assume that Heather showed up, and from what I understand, Heather showed up because there’s a lot of things to do that are really important for the school district, and they need to be focusing on these things. And the fact that they would be fighting against this is just really ridiculous and we need to get to the table and get it resolved.

Allen: Heather, I want to allow you to have the final word here. What is your message to other parents who are either serving on school boards or who maybe are going to those school board meetings, who are contesting policies within their schools that maybe they don’t agree with, who are trying to be a voice within the public education system in defense of their kids? Just what words of encouragement would you offer to parents that might be facing similar situations or people who might have wanted to give a prayer or read Scripture at a school board meeting or another public forum, but who are worried that something like what has happened to you might happen to them?

Rooks: I would just go back to, if God is calling on them to do that, then I answer to God. That’s my No. 1 thing. And if that is what God is calling on their hearts, then that is what we’re told to do. We’re told to listen to him because he’s got us. He’s not going to let us falter. He’s not going to let anything come between him and me. And so that’s what, I would just give that message to anybody that is wanting to do that.

And specifically for parents, I think just really getting involved because before I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know all of the decisions that were being made with children’s education. And so I think that is the biggest thing is that, as a parent, you really need to be involved and to see what is going on, because things that go on can happen very quickly and then you don’t know how it happened. And I think that’s the biggest message for parents.

Allen: Heather Rooks and Hiram Sasser of First Liberty Institute. Thank you both so much for your time today.

Sasser: All right. Thank you so much.

Rooks: Yes, thank you.

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