During health class, students at Airline High, a public school in Bossier Parish, Louisiana, read Bible passages, and their teacher asks them to identify their favorite verses. Airline students told me they are taught creationism as science and pressured into attending Fellowship of Christian Athletes club meetings. During gym class, girls are warned against contraception by a “born again virgin” from the local crisis pregnancy center, a Christian anti-abortion, anti-birth control, anti-premarital-sex advocacy center.
Yet in Bossier, conservative Christians say they feel under attack. In a video shared by tens of thousands of people, Pastor Mike Welch of Bistineau Baptist Church raises his eyebrows above his sunglasses and delivers the line: “Christians, we’ve taken enough stuff lying down.” Welch, parked in his car in front of Airline High, is recording himself on his phone, which is balanced on the dashboard. “I refuse,” he says, “I flat refuse, in America, to be forced into hiding as a Christian!”
Welch was upset because on Sept. 24, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a warning to the Bossier Parish School Board. It stated that Airline’s principal, Jason Rowland, had engaged in a “pattern of religious proselytization.” Among other things, Rowland had sent out newsletters with religious messages and, over the school’s intercom, urged students to “pray to the almighty God.”
In response to the ACLU’s caution about a clear breach of the First Amendment, yard signs calling Rowland a “Prayer Warrior” were planted in front of Airline’s flagpole. The Bossier Parish School Board passed a resolution in support of the principal that declared, “our history and tradition respect the freedom of religion not the freedom from religion.” A pray-in protest against the ACLU was organized.
At the protest the next weekend, the front lawn of Airline High was packed with hundreds of people. Men in leather Christian Motorcyclists Association jackets stood next to high school students in their Fellowship of Christian Athletes T-shirts. People held hands in small circles, and prayer flags waved from their back pockets. Some bowed their heads and kneeled on the concrete, praying. Over a loudspeaker, a woman told the crowd that “the Lord” was about to do something amazing. “Get ready, he’s here!” she announced.
I scanned the crowd, but I didn’t see him.
U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who is running for governor, was one of the people who did show up at the rally. Vitter refused (twice) to speak to me, but he told another reporter that he was there to fight against “the left who wants to push religion out of the public square.” Gov. Bobby Jindal, in a press release, called the ACLU’s warning part of a “war on Christianity.”
“This is typical of the ACLU,” Louisiana state Rep. Mike Johnson, who represents Bossier, told Fox News. “They’re on a seek-and-destroy mission for all things religious.” His Christian legal firm, Freedom Guard, which states, “Biblical principles were the basis of our founding documents,” has offered the Bossier School Board free legal representation.
Rep. Johnson told me at the rally that everything the school district was doing is “totally legal.” He accused the ACLU of “trolling” the Internet to find Christians to attack.
Local churches were organizing furiously. “Fishers of men?” a youngish man in his 20s asked the group of students next to me, referencing the club tagline on their Fellowship of Christian Athletes shirts. He pulled out his own tiny homemade fishing pole—a prayer-rally conversation piece—and invited the kids to join his youth group. He flagged down a short man in camouflage and told the students, “Meet my pastor.”
One preacher who spoke at the rally announced that he needed Christians with “fingers to fight, and hands to war.”
On Fox and Friends, principal Rowland claimed that students had never complained to him about Christianity in the schools. “I’ve never had a complaint from a student of ours who was offended by the fact we saluted a message or even said to them God bless you,” Rowland said. “Where’s our culture … if that’s going to be offensive to someone.”
The community has rallied around principal Rowland. “The Monday morning prayer group at Princeton Elementary lifted up the Airline student body and administration today,” Princeton principal Andrea Spinney wrote to Rowland in an email.
Despite all this talk about war and persecution of Christians, it’s not the administration or Christian students who are being singled out or attacked for their faith. I spoke with more than a dozen Airline High School students and graduates, and it is clear that Airline High has been systematically breaking the law. Religion is being forced on students at every opportunity, and some of them are fed up with it.
All of the students and most of the graduates I interviewed asked for their names to be changed to protect them from repercussions in their school and community. After the prayer rally, I got coffee with three current Airline juniors, Michelle, Lucy, and Joey (all pseudonyms), and they gave me the inside scoop on what was happening at Airline. All three were funny and smart, citing Supreme Court precedent about religion in schools that they had learned about in their government class. They are students that principal Rowland should be proud of—and pay attention to, since he has ignored past complaints.
Christianity is mentioned repeatedly in health class. Michelle said that the teacher would go on “religious rants” and had forced students, including Muslim and nonreligious students, to read the Bible. Michelle said the teacher “tries to convert everyone in class.” Another current Airline junior, Tina, confirmed this to me online. “The health teacher… has had students read Bible passages in class,” she said.
What about sex education? Outside of a discussion about sexually transmitted infections in science class, students told me the only sex education came from a guest speaker, who identified herself as a “born again virgin” from a crisis pregnancy center, a religious organization that provides inaccurate information about pregnancy and contraception.
Some Airline teachers are teaching creationism as science. I spoke with a recent Airline graduate, Allie, who said “my freshman year, my science teacher also showed a video referencing why creationism should be taught in schools and how certain things cannot be proved by science.”
Even worse, Lucy told me that “one of our science teachers got in trouble last year for teaching evolution as a fact” and that “she told our class she got in trouble for it.” Lucy said a different teacher, her AP Biology teacher, “didn’t want to teach evolution because she was scared” about controversy.
Bossier schools have a history of teaching creationism. In June, here in Slate, I wrote about emails that revealed the book of Genesis was being used to “debunk” evolution at Airline. In new emails I obtained, Judy Madden, the principal of Bossier’s T.O. Rusheon Middle School, told her teachers that they should obtain parental permission when teaching a “controversial subject such as creationism for 7th grade science.”
The Bossier school system has justified teaching creationism through a law called the Louisiana Science Education Act that allows teachers to “critique” evolution through “supplemental materials.” In an email to Michael Gryboski, a reporter for the Christian Post, representatives of the school district told him, “Our educators may choose to use the Bible as supplementary material in presenting alternative viewpoints to evolution,” language drawn directly from the law. Another email I obtained, from Tom Daniel, Bossier’s chief academic officer, said, somewhat unintelligibly: “The information that [Bossier Parish’s supervisor of high school curriculum] sent to you was generated due to the Legislature’s ACT 473 – Science Education Act. We are encouraging teachers to use the Bible to teach creationism but rather to supplementary material to present alternative viewpoints to evolution.”
This pedagogical approach is not likely to hold up in court. “Clearly Genesis is not an alternative scientific theory, so they may not present that as science” Charles Haynes, vice president of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, told me.
Beyond creationism, Bossier has even more problems with endorsing religion. Another email I wrote about in June, from Carolyn Goodwin, a Bossier teacher, shed light on how much religion permeates schools there. “Bossier [school district] has [its] problems but there are so many awesome Christians from the top down,” wrote Goodwin. “We pray at school functions and probably break the law all the time!!”
Students confirmed that’s exactly what’s happening.
I spoke with another Airline graduate, Ben, who had been an officer in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes while in high school. He told me that the faculty was “extremely involved” in the FCA and said that Airline’s principal Rowland “often led the FCA large group sessions with his testimony and preaching.”
Allie, the recent graduate, mentioned a dispute she had with principal Rowland about song lyrics on T-shirts. “Not only did he discuss how it was not Christian, but then proceeded to point to the Holy Bible sitting smack-dab in the middle of the desk,” Allie said. “I’m not the only person who was told ‘no’ and then [he] used his Bible as a reference.”
Rowland “definitely used/uses his position of authority as an avenue to evangelize and push his religious beliefs,” Ben said.
The Fellowship of Christian Athletes is supposed to be student-led, but Michelle told me, “teachers encourage you to join the FCA.” Sometimes teachers even forced students to attend FCA meetings. “My freshman year one of my teachers … took all of his kids to FCA,” said Tina. “I had no option whether or not to go and didn’t want to make a scene so I simply followed and sat quietly.” She also told me another teacher made students write her letters to request permission to avoid going to FCA club meetings, forcing non-Christian students to out themselves to her.
Lucy, the Airline junior, told me that they’ve had assemblies where guest speakers have “given their Christian testimony” and mentioned a specific instance where the founder of a local gym, the Christ Fit Gym, gave a speech about overcoming post-traumatic stress disorder through his faith in Jesus. “We were required to go to it,” said Lucy.
I asked students about one of the incidents described in the ACLU’s complaint. Michelle explained that after one of the school’s coaches died, principal Rowland came on the intercom and said, “OK, now I’m going to have a prayer to the almighty God, and if you believe in the almighty God—I know I do—pray to him.” Allie, told me about another intercom incident. After the Boston bombing, while Rowland was saying the Pledge of Allegiance, he “emphasized UNDER GOD to the point where he was screaming it in the loud speaker,” she said.
One story, from 2011, that came up repeatedly was about the Fellowship of Christian Athletes distributing pocket Bibles to students during lunch. Allie was a sophomore at the time, and she told me, the “FCA gave students Bibles and encouraged people to pass them out to a sinful school because it was ‘our jobs as students’ to minster to the broken.’”
According to several students and the Shreveport Times, Bibles were thrown at kids who refused to accept them. Rowland took no disciplinary action after the incident, saying he hadn’t had complaints.
The ACLU’s warning letter to Bossier was prompted by anonymous student complaints. These students aren’t trying to take prayer out of schools; Christian students have the right to pray in schools. They just want school administrators to stop coercing students into being Christian.
“I would imagine being a non-Christian, minority, or LGBT student at a school where the FCA was probably the largest organization at the school would be very marginalizing,” Ben, the former FCA officer, told me.
Ben was right. “I went to FCA and listened to sermons by Rowland that promote a hypermasculine, Christian ideal,” my friend Michael Graves told me. Graves was the student body president at Airline when he attended and is now a graduate student at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. “When I came out, there were some teachers who blatantly told me they thought I was sinning, but thankfully I had graduated.” He said it took him years before he felt comfortable being open about LGBTQ issues out of fear of rejection by some of his old mentors.
Graves was the only person who was willing to let me use his real name in this story. Other people, who were still living in Bossier, had read online threats against ACLU supporters and couldn’t risk it. Lucy told me, “my parents were worried about me coming here today,” and Michelle said, “if there was a name [of the person who complained to the ACLU] revealed … that person would probably get attacked.”
Maybe the reason that Rowland has never had a complaint about his promotion of religion is not because people aren’t offended. It’s because they’re afraid. Despite all the prayer rallies and statements from politicians about attacks on Christianity, real persecution exists where people are actually being forced to hide.
But principal Rowland isn’t worried about these students. Asked by Airline staff if he wanted to take the prayer message described in the original ACLU complaint down from the school’s website, Rowland wrote in an email, “We are not changing anything we do because of detractors.”
The only question I have left is: When will the ACLU file a lawsuit?