A local ACLU director equated al-Qaida terrrorists with members of a Louisiana school board seeking to open their meetings with prayer.

Joe Cook of the ACLU of Louisiana spoke on camera with WAFB-TV, Baton Rouge, La., while staff and teachers of the Tangipahoa Parish district in New Orleans were at a seminar being informed of their free-speech rights by a member of the Alliance Defense Fund.

Referring to the school board, Cook said, “They believe that they answer to a higher power, in my opinion. Which is the kind of thinking that you had with the people who flew the airplanes into the buildings in this country, and the people who did the kind of things in London.”

Mike Johnson, senior counsel and southeastern regional coordinator for the Alliance Defense Fund, said Cook has become increasingly outlandish in his statements.

“It shows the ACLU has become more and more extreme and marginalized,” said Johnson. “So, to that extent, I like it when he talks, because he simply reveals who they are.”

Johnson said the ACLU tries to “come across as champions of liberty, but the truth of the matter is they are extremists.”

“It’s clear in a number of recent cases that the ACLU of Louisiana wants to impose a radical form of secularism that the Constitution doesn’t require, and frankly, that people of this state are not willing to accept,” Johnson said.

The local ACLU has filed three lawsuits in the past 10 years on behalf of “offended parents” with children in the Tangipahoa Parish district.

The board is appealing a federal judge’s ruling that prayers at its regular meetings violate the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution, which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

The board – which has opened each of its meetings with a prayer, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance, for more than 30 years – argues the invocations impose no restriction on any religious viewpoint, and any person who wants to lead the prayer may do so regardless of his religious beliefs.

In 2003, however, a parent of two high school students in the district, represented by the ACLU, filed a lawsuit claiming the invocations were unconstitutional.

The trial judge recognized it is constitutional for legislative or deliberative bodies to begin meetings with prayer, but she ruled the principle did not apply to the school board.

The ACLU says, “The school board’s consistent defiance of the law not only dishonors and endangers the Constitution, but it also sends a message of religious intolerance and polarizes the community.”

In April, the ACLU of Louisiana filed a motion for criminal contempt against the board for allegedly defying a court order banning official prayer at athletic events.

In March, the local ACLU also asked a judge to hold the board in contempt for allowing an elementary school student to recite the Lord’s Prayer before its meeting.

Public prayer at school-related functions is “un-American and immoral,” Cook said at the time.

“Public schools should be kept inclusive and secular in keeping with our founders’ ideas for religious liberty for all,” said Cook. “Because public schools are part of the government, official school-organized or school-sponsored devotional exercises are inconsistent with the principle of religious freedom.”

Cook made his comments to the New Orleans TV station while the ADF’s Johnson was providing in-service training to the district’s 1,500 staff and teachers, outlining the legal parameters in which they can express religious faith in a public school setting.

“What [the ACLU desires] is to remove all religious expression from the public square,” Johnson said. “But the people of Louisiana are not along for that ride. [Cook] has a very different vision for the country that the people here do. Traditional family values and religious liberty are still things held in high regard here. When he comes forward with this message, there is a backlash.”

Johnson said most of the seminar amounted to going through the Department of Education guidelines on prayer in schools.

Any school receiving federal funding through the No Child Left Behind Act must commit to the guidelines each year, but the information rarely is passed down to the classroom, Johnson said.

The guidelines – first issued in 1995 under President Clinton and most recently revised by the Bush adminstration in 2003 – essentially say students and teachers maintain their rights to free speech and religious expression on campus.

All religious express that is student-led and not a material disruption to the school program must be allowed, Johnson emphasized.

Public schools must be neutral toward religion and allow equal access to student media outlets and facilities for after-hours events. If a math club can use a classroom, a religious-oriented one can use one too, Johnson said.

Related stories:

ACLU fights school board’s prayers

ACLU: Jail school officials for prayer

ACLU: Punish officials for ‘un-American’ prayer

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