They were “directed by legal” to stop quoting scripture, but some Peoria school board members continue the practice at public meetings

“Disturbing” scripture reportedly being read during meetings


Northeast Valley News

Some of the people in attendance and board members at Thursday night’s PUSD governing board meeting in Peoria.

Benjamin Fischer, Reporter

Quoting biblical scripture at public meetings from some members of the Peoria Unified School District’s governing board has been met with a possible legal issue over public “indoctrination” by promoting religion at government meetings and at least two organizations are investigating—one sending a warning letter to the district over the violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause. 

A letter sent to the Peoria board in late May from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) states that certain members of the PUSD governing board are reading scripture, making suggestions that those who embrace Christian nationalism attend the board meetings en masse and are allegedly encouraging other board members to read scripture as well. Among the allegations within the letter are reports of the scripture readings causing disruptions at public government meetings. 

At a May 11 board meeting the letter states that one member recited a “disturbing” bible verse that threatens those who are not Christian by suggesting that non-Christians— or those who lead people away from Christ—should be drowned in the sea.

Both the Freedom from Religion Foundation and Secular AZ—who had a member of their organization in attendance at last week’s meeting, addressed the board and voiced concern over the coercive words taken from biblical scripture and read during public school board meetings. 

The scripture references quoted by some school board members at meetings are allegedly in response to a proposal voted on in April that would have implemented a bathroom policy at PUSD restricting non-binary students from using the gendered bathroom with which they have aligned—the policy failed to pass. 

According to a PUSD communications representative, a presentation by the Governing Board’s attorney took place on April 27 for public viewing. Following the presentation, a message was also sent out to staff and parents addressing the issue. The presentation is of public record and addresses many of the concerns.

At least two PUSD board members have voiced objections over the failed non-binary restricted policy and read biblical scripture during public board meetings—one board member continued with scripture citations during last Thursday’s meeting despite a prior warning from their own school “legal” representatives.

Two PUSD board members, Heather Rooks and Rebecca Hill have recited biblical scripture at board meetings and at one recent board meeting the school district’s motto of —“Every Student, Every Day” was modified and was instead read by one of the members as: “Every Student, Every Day—Except the Girls.”

The possibility of a future bathroom policy that supports non-binary students has allegedly sparked Rooks and Hill and others who align with the Christian scriptural citations to dig in to their position and continue to use scripture and biblical references at meetings in protest against policy supporting non-binary use of bathrooms. 

Rooks, despite the warning from her own district legal team read, “Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise,” at last week’s meeting. 

Hill quoted a different scripture during a May meeting that read, “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 heavy millstone hung around his neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

Quoting from a religious text of any religion violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which was included to preserve the separation of Church and State. 

The Establishment Clause is another name for the First Amendment of the United States contained within the Bill of Rights and reads as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” 

This amendment has been interpreted by the courts to clearly separate church functions from those of the state, including the ability to quote scripture at a public school board meeting.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation letter cited previous lawsuits from past plaintiffs that have violated the Establishment Clause and have asked the Peoria board to enforce ending scripture reading during public government meetings. 

“We ask that the Board take whatever action necessary to ensure that Ms. Rooks and all other members of the Board respect the constitutional rights of the Peoria Unified School District community. Allowing board members to use their positions to promote their personal religious beliefs to students and community members during a school board meeting violates these constitutional limits on government religious coercion and sends a message that the government supports religion in general and Christianity specifically.”

Northeast Valley News spoke with Jeanne Casteen from Secular AZ on her thoughts after last Thursday’s meeting that included additional biblical verse reading even after the warning from the board’s own attorney.

“There is a separation of church and state and the law is pretty clear about elected officials specifically in public schools not being able to read any scripture, whether it’s from the Koran, whether it’s from the Bible, whether it’s from Satanic Temple Seven Tenets,” Casteen said. 

When asked about praying in general, Casteen said, “Sure, on your own time, absolutely, pray before a meeting, go right ahead.”

“My biggest concern right now is that when folks on school boards do stuff like this it will invite a lawsuit.”

New proposals with regard to a bathroom policy are not in place—at least for now as the school district does not specify who can and cannot use bathrooms.

As biblical scriptures and religious warnings are still being quoted at the board meetings—lawsuits may be on the horizon.