First Liberty Institute filed Heather Rooks’ complaint in Tucson U.S. District Court on September 26. It names Peoria (Arizona) Unified School District a defendant.
The lawsuit alleges that the school district violated Rooks’s constitutional rights to free expression by prohibiting her short Bible citations.
One secular political action group vowed to sue the district if Rooks was not stopped from reading the Bible.
Rooks asserts in her 28-page filing that constitutional authority, historical precedent, and the law grant her the right to openly quote Scripture.
The lawsuit states that Rooks wishes to partake in the long-standing practice of public officials solemnizing events.
“After all, the current U.S. president, the first, and an unbroken chain of U.S. officials have quoted scripture to solemnize official occasions or speeches, inspire citizens, and fortify themselves to perform their official duties,” the speaker stated.
“Rooks acting similarly is not illegal.”
A mother of four students in the district of 32,000 students, Rooks was elected to the five-member board in 2022. After taking office in January, she began opening board meetings’ public comment sessions with a short Scripture passage. She gave no teaching on the passage, and offered no commentary but simply read a verse.
On January 12, Rooks quoted Joshua 1:9. “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.”
At later meetings, she read Isaiah 41:10, Proverbs 22:6, Corinthians 16:13, and others.
After the board meeting on February 9, Secular Communities for Arizona, a activist group working to remove the expression of faith in the public square, accused Rooks of “unconstitutional proselytizing” by using biblical references.
The group also claimed it violated the state constitution, the board’s purpose statement, and the Establishment Clause.
According to her suit, secular activist groups accused Rooks of violating the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by citing a religious scripture. The Establishment Clause protects religion from government overreach and political intervention.
“[Rooks] respectfully brings this action to declare her rights as a board member and citizen and clear up the misunderstanding that unfortunately clouded a Republic-old procedure” her suit states.
The lawsuit claims that Lisa Anne Smith, the district board’s legal counsel, emailed board members that praying or reciting scripture at board sessions was forbidden.
Next, board executive assistant Kimberly Kontra summarized the advice to the council.
“Board members acting in their role as such should not read scripture during a board meeting, as it violates the Establishment Clause. Legal counsel also stated that the First Amendment is not applicable in this situation, as one is speaking as a member of the public governing body, not an individual.”
At a board meeting on March 1, Rooks questioned the district attorney’s legal position and got clarification from district administrator Jason Reynolds.
On March 9, Rooks cited Corinthians 16:13 to support her position after Reynolds submitted a memo to the board repeating the legal view. Her verse read: “Stay awake, stand firm in your faith, be brave, be strong.”
On May 25, the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s staff attorney wrote to the board that Rooks was using her position to personally indoctrinate people into religion.
On July 13, Rooks agreed to stop citing Scripture “at this time” and “will have my attorneys at First Liberty Institute handle this matter.”
Rooks sought a “judicial determination of her rights” as an elected board member under threat of lawsuits and government punishment, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit contends Rooks has “absolute legislative immunity for statements made at public meetings,” but acknowledges the Establishment Clause was not violated.
Rooks “never forces others to cooperate. The lawsuit alleges she doesn’t ask anyone to rise, bow, or read.
It claims that mentioning Bible verses is “perfectly consistent” with the Establishment Clause and that denying her that freedom was unconstitutional.
–Dwight Widaman | Metro Voice