The Freedom From Religion Foundation is urging the Peoria Unified School District in Arizona to stop its board members from quoting incendiary Christian verses during official meetings.
A concerned Peoria Unified School District employee has informed the state/church watchdog that Board Member Heather Rooks has been using her position to impose her personal religious beliefs upon district parents and community members. The complainant reports that Rooks quotes from the bible at every board meeting, and that other members of the board have started to do so also. At the May 11 meeting, for instance, Board Member Rebecca Hill recited Matthew 18:6, a bible verse threatening non-Christians and suggesting that they, as well as those who lead people away from Christ, should be drowned at sea:
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.
Rooks followed by quoting 1 Corinthians 2:5: “That your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” Rooks has also openly embraced Christian nationalism and invites her supporters to attend board meetings en masse, sometimes causing disruptions to official proceedings.
FFRF points out that the Establishment Clause — which protects Americans’ religious freedom by ensuring the continued separation of religion and government — dictates that the government cannot in any way show favoritism toward religion. Allowing board members to use their positions to promote their personal religious beliefs to students and community members during a school board meeting violates constitutional limits on government religious coercion and sends a message that the government supports religion in general and Christianity specifically.
“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,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to President of the Peoria USD Governing Board David Sandoval.
The school board members serve a diverse population that consists not only of Christians, but also minority religious and nonreligious staff members. Religious communications made in their official capacity send a message that excludes those who are among the 37 percent of Americans who are non-Christians, including the nearly one in three adult Americans who are religiously unaffiliated.
And if board members continue to impose religion on those in attendance, it could subject the school district to unnecessary liability and potential financial strain. When FFRF secured a court order against a California school district regarding its school board prayers, the court ordered the district to pay more than $200,000 in the plaintiffs’ attorney fees and costs. After appeal, the court ordered the district to pay an additional $75,000 for plaintiffs’ attorney fees and costs associated with the appeal for a total of more than a quarter million dollars.
FFRF is requesting that members of the Peoria USD Governing Board refrain from discussing their religious beliefs during meetings in order to uphold the rights of conscience embodied in our First Amendment, and that the board take action to comply with the Constitution.
“The purpose of our public schools is to educate, not to indoctrinate,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “And it’s the school board’s duty to model respect for the First Amendment and the rights of conscience of all students and parents.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 40,000 members and several chapters across the country, including more than 1,000 members and a chapter in Arizona. FFRF works to protect the constitutional separation between state and church and to educate about nontheism.