(RNS) — An Arizona school board member who was instructed to stop quoting Bible passages during board meetings filed a federal lawsuit against her district Wednesday (Sept. 27), alleging her First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion had been violated.
Heather Rooks, a Christian who attends a large nondenominational church, has been serving the Peoria Unified School District, one of Arizona’s largest districts, since January 2023. She is being represented by the law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP and the First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based conservative legal organization known for defending school football coach Joe Kennedy, who recently won a Supreme Court Case after being fired for praying at the 50-yard line.
Since the start of her term, Rooks, whose four children attend school in the district, has quoted short Bible passages during the “board comments” portion of each board meeting. The passages were often related to the theme of courage.
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go,” Rooks said at a meeting in January, quoting from the first chapter of Joshua in the Hebrew Bible.
“Keep me safe, my God, for in you I take refuge,” she said in April, quoting from Psalm 16.
Rooks told Religion News Service she was surprised and then saddened after being instructed not to quote Scripture, because she “never thought that would happen in America.” She said she recited Bible passages as a source of strength when faced with difficult decisions.
“With everything that goes on as a new school board member, we’re facing a lot of adversity and challenges. So reading those verses really gave me some strength and courage and peace,” Rooks said.
Rooks said, in particular, she was seeking courage to “keep speaking out for parents.”
Critics of Rooks say her quoting of Bible passages has political undertones, especially during board meetings where issues like white supremacy and gender nonconformity are discussed. In April, the board voted down a bathroom policy supported by Rooks that would have restricted transgender students from using bathrooms that align with their gender identity.
In February, the group Secular Communities for Arizona issued a complaint to the board arguing that Rooks was violating the Constitution’s establishment clause.
“It is coercive, embarrassing, and intimidating for citizens from a different religion or nonreligious citizens to display deference toward a religious sentiment in which they do not believe, but which this school board member does,” wrote Dianne Post, legal director of Secular Communities for Arizona, in an email included in the lawsuit.
In May and again in June, a staff attorney for the nonprofit group Freedom From Religion Foundation sent emails to the board president requesting that the district stop board members from promoting their beliefs. The emails said that failure to do so would “subject the school district to unnecessary liability and potential financial strain.”
The board’s legal counsel emailed board members in mid-July saying it would “be in the best interest of the District” for board members to stop quoting Bible verses because doing so violated federal and state laws and because Freedom From Religion and Secular Arizona had “threatened” to “take further action,” including filing a lawsuit.
Shortly after, Rooks announced at a board meeting that she would refrain from reciting Bible passages. She added that she would “have my attorneys at First Liberty Institute handle this matter,” according to the suit.
The lawsuit claims that quoting brief Bible passages without comment does not violate the First Amendment’s prohibition against establishment of religion but is instead part of the “longstanding tradition of government officials solemnizing public occasions in this way.”
In conversation with RNS, Hiram Sasser, executive general counsel for First Liberty Institute, clarified that the tradition of calling upon a resource to solemnize an occasion applies to people of all religious backgrounds, not just Christians quoting the Bible.
Rooks’ lawsuit also says the District’s policy and actions “chill her ability to freely speak” and “substantially burden her religious exercise by forcing her to choose between following the precepts of her religion and retaining her position as a member of the Board.” Thus, it argues, the District has violated state and federal laws guaranteeing Rooks’ right to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion.
In a call with RNS, Freedom From Religion Foundation co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor questioned the efficacy of the suit, saying that because the District didn’t discipline Rooks, there’s “no actual case or controversy for a lawsuit.”
“She’s suing her own school district because she disagrees with a legal opinion about the legal liability that the board is entailing if her conduct continues,” said Gaylor. “Heather Rooks is basically abusing judicial resources in order to fight a culture war.”
Sasser told RNS that in joining the case, First Liberty Institute is “fighting to preserve the correct and original meaning of the Constitution. He added that he thinks school districts are still adjusting to the Supreme Court’s Kennedy v. Bremerton School District decision, which found the Constitution protects a football coach’s right to pray in front of students.
“You have 50 years of legal precedent that essentially tilts the scales in favor of censorship of anything religious in public,” said Sasser. “That is suddenly gone, and the new standard is to accommodate religious speech.”
In her July email to the school board, the board’s legal counsel argued that Kennedy v. Bremerton did not apply because the coach’s prayer was silent and not broadcast publicly. She did not return requests for comment.
As of Monday afternoon, Peoria Unified School District had not yet been served, but Sasser said the process was underway.
“Heather decided to let the legal process play out,” said Sasser. “That’s why we filed the lawsuit: to see if they’re right, or we’re right.”
(This story was reported with support from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation.)