Arizona school board member sues district over Bible verses

Arizona school board member Heather Rooks sues district after being banned from quoting Bible verses at meetings

  • Board member Heather Rooks filed suit against Peoria Unified School District
  • Said district banned her from quoting Bible at meetings violates free speech
  • District claims her Bible quotes breach the separation between church and state 

A school board member in Arizona has filed a lawsuit alleging rules prohibiting her from reciting Bible passages at official meetings are a violation of her free speech rights.

Heather Rooks, an elected member of the Peoria Unified School District Governing Board, sued the district in the lawsuit filed in Arizona federal court last week. 

According to the complaint, Rooks had taken to reciting a Bible verse during the portion of the meeting where members can offer comments of their choosing, as means to ‘fortify herself to perform her official duties’.

But Rooks says she felt ‘felt compelled to stop quoting scripture’ after receiving a letter from the district warning her that doing so violates the Establishment Clause of the US Constitution, which prohibits the government from establishing a religion.

In her suit, Rooks seeks unspecified damages, and a court decision upholding her right to recite Bible passages during the board comments period as protected speech.

Heather Rooks, an elected member of the Peoria Unified School District Governing Board, has filed a lawsuit alleging that a district rule prohibiting her from reciting Bible passages at official meetings is a violation of her free speech rights

A spokesperson for the Peoria Unified District told the district had been served with the complaint on Thursday.

‘The district is reviewing the claims with legal counsel and will respond within the timeline outlined in the applicable rules of procedure,’ the spokesperson added. 

Attorney Andy Gould at the First Liberty Institute, which is representing Rooks alongside law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, said in a statement: ‘Heather takes her responsibilities serving the parents and students in her community seriously, and quotes Bible verses as a source of courage and strength in performing those duties. 

‘Like so many dedicated public leaders throughout our history, Heather most certainly can use inspirational quotes from religious, historical, and philosophical sources and figures as a source of personal inspiration, as well and encouragement to the community at-large.’ 

‘I am grateful to be a part of the Peoria Unified School board,’ said Rooks in her own statement. 

‘As a member of the school board, I understand the weight and significance of all of our decisions, and simply find quoting scripture out loud to be encouraging to myself and to many in attendance,’ she added. 

Rooks, a mother of four who ran for the Peoria school board on a campaign for parents’ rights, began her term in January 2023. 

She says that since the beginning of her tenure, she has opened her remarks during the board comments period by quoting a short scripture from the Bible. 

Rooks, a mother of four who ran for the Peoria school board on a campaign for parents’ rights, began her term in January 2023 

The headquarters of Peoria Unified School District is seen above

‘At the beginning of her comments, Rooks would often recite a brief Bible verse—a simple quotation without elaboration or further comment,’ the lawsuit states. 

‘Each time Rooks recited a scripture, she chose the verse to solemnize the occasion and fortify herself to perform her official duties,’ the suit adds. 

In her suit, Rooks cites US elected officials from George Washington to President Joe Biden, who have also quoted religious scripture in public remarks, arguing that doing so is part of a longstanding tradition and a protected form of speech. 

‘Rooks’ use of quotations from a sacred and historical text—the world’s best-selling book—to solemnize public occasions and fortify herself to perform her official duties fits comfortably within a longstanding, well accepted tradition,’ the suit argues. 

‘This Court should declare its lawfulness and dispel the threats that have forced Rooks to suspend her practice of it.’ 

Rooks’ attorneys say that the Peoria School Board acted after receiving letters from ‘anti-religious organizations’ demanding the district prevent her from reading scripture. 

One of the groups that protested Rooks’ Bible quotations, Secular AZ, issued a statement slamming her lawsuit as ‘another in a long string of bullying behaviors aimed at intimidation of the Board, a usurpation of legitimate authority, and an enforcement of Christian nationalists’ dogma.’ 

‘Courts have continually ruled that prayer is not permissible at school board meetings because of the importance of maintaining secularism in schools and the risk of pressuring impressionable students, who often attend meetings,’ the statement added.

‘The fact that presidents and legislators reference scripture is irrelevant.’ 

The case is 23-cv-02028 in US District Court for the District of Arizona. 

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