The Freedom From Religion Foundation is vehemently objecting to a highly religious and discriminatory outing that a Louisiana school district recently encouraged its students to attend.
A concerned citizen reported that East Baton Rouge Parish School System students were given a flier and permission slip for an event titled “29:11 & EBR Day of Hope 2022 Seniors ONLY Field Trip.” It was advertised as a college fair for seniors, featuring a guest speaker, food and games. The 29:11 Mentorship Academy is an explicitly Christian faith organization, stating on its website: “We believe by being Inspirational, Intentional and Intimate we’re able to redirect our students to Jesus Christ who defines their future and to change the world.” The name 29:11 itself is a direct reference to the book of Jeremiah in the Christian bible, which reads: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”
The flier in no way mentioned that 29:11 was a Christian organization. And it didn’t state that the event was being hosted by a church or give any indication as to what topics would be discussed. Speaker sessions were reportedly separated by sex, and transgender students were not given the option to join the group that best aligned with their gender identity, with at least one transgender boy being prevented from leaving the “girl-talk sessions.” It’s been reported that transgender students were bullied by the other students in attendance, including having water poured over their heads, with no intervention on the part of the adults present.
Students were inundated with harmful and traumatic religious rhetoric at the event. One speaker told the students present that they should forgive rapists and abusers, stating that she would not have been physically abused if she “had waited for the man God meant for her.” A pastor preached to the students about “being a good Christian girl.” Other speakers reportedly gave graphic talks about “rape and forgiving the offender, suicide, and prayer leadership,” among other controversial topics.
“It is well settled that public schools may not show favoritism toward or coerce belief or participation in religion,” FFRF Equal Justice Works Fellow Kat Grant writes to East Baton Rouge Parish School System Superintendent Sito Narcisse. “Bringing students to a church to be preached at violates this basic constitutional prohibition by creating the appearance that the district prefers religion over nonreligion and Christianity over all other faiths.”
Certainly, the religious content of “Day of Hope” would not be permitted to exist in a public school, FFRF emphasizes. Likewise, school activities must not contain proselytizing messages.
The reported bullying behavior at the event also directly violates the East Baton Rouge School System’s policy regarding bullying and harassment, which clearly states: “Students have the right to expect respect from all fellow students and to be free from any form of bullying by another student.” Much of the bullying and harrassment faced by LGBTQ-plus students is religiously motivated due to the history of many religions condemning homosexuality and transgender identities. The religious nature of this event directly contributed to the danger transgender and gender nonconforming students were placed in, with one student who attended the event saying:
“As a genderfluid person, I don’t identify as either a boy or a girl, so this was a troubling situation for me. However, due to the nature of this program being in a church, I immediately assumed that I would be discriminated against if I went with the boys, so I stayed sitting down and kept my mouth shut.”
It is an egregious abuse of government power to proselytize a captive audience of young, impressionable school students in this manner, FFRF underscores. The fact that participation or attendance on these field trips is voluntary is not a valid safeguard, since courts have summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation. The district must refrain from taking students on future field trips to any other religious destinations, and must ensure it abides by its own anti-bullying policies.
“We’ve witnessed over the years some outrageous religious events that public schools participated in,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, “but this one really takes the cake.”
Read the full FFRF letter to the East Baton Rouge Parish School System here.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 38,000 members across the country, including members in Louisiana. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.