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NW LA controversies call for prudence

In north Louisiana it’s a different arena, but the same questionable dynamic, regarding battles over display of religious belief in the public schools into which Republican state Sen. Ryan Gatti has thrust himself.

For a couple of years the Bossier Parish School Board has battled a lawsuit that the district allows impermissible transmission of religious messages. It steadily closed in on trying to settle the case where it would admit fault and mandate changes of practices concerning a case that consumed taxpayer resources with no real chance of winning.

However, that all appeared to change last week, over a related incident. A local business by the name of Christ Fit Gym had paid for a sponsorship logo, which also contained a Biblical reference, on the Benton High School football field. In fact, it had done so the previous year without incident.

But the same organization backing the plaintiffs in the suit called for the logo’s removal. This set off a series of events where school officials reluctantly complied, then redid it, while a suit with preliminary motions to be heard later this week was filed by the owner who pointed out he had a contract and had put down money for it. Gatti, a lawyer with next to no experience regarding the Constitution’s First Amendment and its Establishment Clause, spearheaded the owner’s legal effort.

While the new suit apparently didn’t name the Board but the booster club the Board allows use of school facilities to support Benton athletics, the publicity surrounding the effort may have convinced it to cancel any settlement of its suit. It says it now intends to fight instead of settling the suit.

Unfortunately, the two incidents intertwine to make winning either less tenable. One of the country’s most successful litigators in Establishment Clause constitutional issues, the area’s GOP Rep. Mike Johnson, thinks together the two cases would make it more convincing to the courts that the Board has decided to thumb its nose at constitutional jurisprudence, increasing the chances the Board will lose. And, he points out, there already exists an appellate court decision that equates banners on school property as government speech that suggests the owner would lose (although in a legal environment differing from the present one in Bossier he wonders whether that decision would stand up).

Johnson frets that the Board’s wanting to go to trial not only would result in expensive litigation and costly potential penalties, but also, in the worst-case scenario, actually bring attenuation to permitted religious displays in public schools. Johnson expressed a similar sentiment with another controversy involving Gatti, this in the Louisiana Legislature earlier this year.

Then, Gatti introduced legislation that essentially would have allowed students to waive the Establishment Clause. It would have let school personnel join students in religious expression on school grounds or related to school activities, long held impermissible by the courts, if all students present signed forms stating these employees could.

Wiser heads prevailed in the Legislature and the bill became one where personnel only could signal acknowledgment that students were exercising their constitutional rights, out of the certainty that Gatti’s version would provoke a successful and costly legal challenge. As the regular session wound down, Gatti pleaded with his colleagues to retain the bill as was, to no avail.

Undoubtedly, Gatti has taken these positions because he thinks secularism has gone too far in public schools. Also true is that these raise his profile – regardless of whether his positions would triumph in a court of law – for what looms as a tough reelection campaign that has conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity criticizing him.

As Edmund Burke cogently explained, the legislator needs prudence above all else in translating theory to practice. It’s something to which elected officials like the BPSB members and Gatti must pay sufficient attention lest they disserve their constituents, as well as something voters must consider in determining who may best lead them.

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