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Arizona school board member sues district for not letting her quote Bible at meetings
Heather Rooks can't tell the difference between church and state
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Heather Rooks, a member of Arizona’s Peoria Unified School District school board, is suing the district for telling her to stop quoting the Bible at meetings. She’s backed by the right-wing First Liberty Institute, which says there’s nothing inherently religious about what she’s doing; she’s simply citing “inspirational quotes from religious, historical, and philosophical sources and figures as a source of personal inspiration.”
Rooks began pushing her religion shortly after joining the board in January. There are parts of those meetings called “Board comments” where members are allowed to say whatever they want, whether it’s commemorating a holiday or drawing attention to issues faced by the district.
Rooks used that time to spread the Gospel—and so did one of her allies.
On February 23, for example, she began her remarks by citing Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” That’s a verse that’s been used to justify child abuse.
On March 9, she opened her remarks with a reference to 1 Corinthians 16:13: “Be on guard. Stay awake, stand firm in your faith, be brave, be strong.”
That comment was soon followed by a reminder from Board President David Sandoval that their own attorneys had told them reciting Scripture at board meetings went against the Establishment Clause. In fact, those attorneys said the First Amendment didn’t apply to Rooks in this situation because she was “speaking as a member of the public governing body, not an individual.”
By May, it had only gotten worse: Fellow conservative board member Rebecca Hill opened her remarks with a recitation of a Bible verse that has often been interpreted as a threat to non-Christians:
But whoever causes one of these little ones—who believe in me—to stumble and sin by leading him away from my teaching, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. - Matthew 18:6
Rooks followed that up with a reference to 1 Corinthians 2:5: “That your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
(Incidentally, a month later, Jeanne Casteen, the Executive Director for the Secular Coalition for Arizona, spoke during the public comments portion of a board meeting and apologized to all non-evangelicals students and families “as a caring adult in this room that last month one of the board members called for your eradication.”)
The Freedom From Religion Foundation soon sent a letter to the district warning them to put a stop to this:
While board members are free to promote their personal religious beliefs however they wish in their personal capacities outside of the school board, as government officials they cannot be allowed to commandeer the board in order to impose their personal religious beliefs on district students, parents, and employees. We ask that the Board take whatever action necessary to ensure that Ms. Rooks and all other members of the Board respect the constitutional rights of the Peoria Unified School District community.
FFRF pointed out that a lawsuit they filed for a similar reason against the Chino Valley Unified School District in California led to the district having to pay out more than $200,000. If this board didn’t want to face the same consequences, they needed to take action immediately. They later sent a follow-up letter urging the board to “censure any school board members who abuse their position by pushing their personal religious beliefs during board meetings.”
At the very next meeting, Rooks… didn’t give a shit. She cited a verse from Ephesians: “Therefore, put on every piece of God’s armor so that you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil.”
If that’s her idea of an inspirational quotation, she has serious problems. It was obvious she was referring to advocates of church/state separation as the enemy.
By July, though, Rooks said she would “refrain from reciting Bible verses at this time and will have my attorneys at first Liberty Institute handle this matter.” Her colleague Hill didn’t make the same statement but said that when she joined the board, "I swore to God that I would uphold the Constitution, which includes my First Amendment rights.”
Now we know how Rooks plans to respond.
Rather than keep her religion to herself, she’s suing the school board for telling her not to quote the Bible at meetings. (In that sense, she’s suing them before FFRF has a chance to do it first.)
The 28-page lawsuit says Rooks deserves “absolute legislative immunity” for reciting the Bible at meetings, asks a judge to rule that her Bible readings are legal, and requests money for damages and attorneys’ fees and as a relief for all the previous times she was told not to recite those verses.
The suit also says Rooks is no different from other elected officials:
After all, the current U.S. President, the first U.S. President, and an unbroken chain of U.S. officials in between have quoted scripture to solemnize official occasions or speeches, encourage their fellow citizens, and fortify themselves to carry out their official duties. There is nothing unlawful about Rooks doing likewise.
That’s a lie because, as we’ve seen with invocation prayers, the courts have repeatedly noted a key difference between, say, Congress or a city council having an opening prayer and school boards doing the same: There are children involved in the latter. Because kids are often present at school board meetings, those gatherings are basically treated as school-sponsored events. It’s illegal for administrators or employees to push faith on kids, even if, like Rooks, they insist they’re not trying to proselytize. (That’s obviously different from studying certain passages for academic reasons.)
First Liberty claims:
Rooks’ use of quotations from a sacred and historical text—the world’s best-selling book—to solemnize public occasions and fortify herself to perform her official duties fits comfortably within a longstanding, well-accepted tradition. This Court should declare its lawfulness and dispel the threats that have forced Rooks to suspend her practice of it.
Besides the fact that anyone who needs to read a Bible verse out loud, in public, in front of a microphone to do her job well isn’t fit to do the job, reciting Bible verses at school board meetings is not a “longstanding, well-accepted tradition.” First Liberty is just pretending that what Rooks is doing is the same as a president because there’s no actual legal precedent for school board members doing what she’s doing.
This lawsuit shouldn’t go anywhere because the board’s attorneys and FFRF were right all along. Prayers don’t belong at school board meetings, and board members can’t use meetings to push their faith on others no matter how innocuously it might seem. Even Joe Kennedy had to wait until after the final whistle had blown before he could perform his attention-seeking prayers at midfield after football games.
If Rooks wants to pray, she can do it on her own time. She can do it while driving to a meeting. She can silently do it while others are speaking. She can do it during a bathroom break. Does she think her God is so weak that He’s unable to hear those prayers? There’s nothing in the Bible that says prayers must be delivered publicly in order to “count.” In fact, if Rooks ever read the Bible, she’d know there are verses specifically condemning that.
In response to her lawsuit, the Secular Coalition for Arizona told me it was “another in a long string of bullying behaviors aimed at intimidation of the Board, usurpation of legitimate authority, and enforcement of Christian nationalists’ dogma.”
They added in a statement to Friendly Atheist:
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.
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.
TL;DR: The 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.
They also pointed out that Rooks cites Arizona law in making a free speech claim, but that very same law includes a provision that speakers are “responsible for the abuse of that right.” Similarly, Rooks makes a state-based religious freedom argument, but Arizona’s Constitution also says, “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.” It could be argued that non-Christians are being targeted by Rooks.
On a side note, the Secular Coalition for Arizona has been tracking Rooks’ insane actions for the past several months and their Substack newsletter is mandatory reading (especially if you live in the state).
What have I learned about Rooks from that newsletter? Besides the prayer debacle, when Rooks recites the district’s slogan “Every student, every day” at the beginning of meetings, she has added “except the girls,” because she thinks the district’s trans-inclusive policies hurt girls. She follows neo-Nazi social media accounts. She whined about a promotional video all about the district’s history of racial diversity and inclusion, saying it “made it all about race.” She opposed social workers traveling to an out-of-state conference (even though it was funded entirely by grant money) because that conference included sessions with anti-racism components. She insisted that when the district seeks out its next superintendent, one of the qualifications needs to be “love of country.” She rejected a free computer science partnership with Microsoft that would have benefitted numerous students because the company proudly boasts of its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
On most of those battles, she’s thankfully outnumbered on the PUSD board by more rational people, but as we all know by now, that can change very quickly as right-wing groups mobilize to take over school boards.
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