As a mother of four, Heather Rooks understands the importance of a quality education for all children. Concerned about recent curriculum choices at the local schools, she campaigned for a position on the Peoria District School Board and won.
Immediately she discovered that the school board meetings and her new role presented stressful challenges. When it was her turn to speak at her first board meeting, she readied herself by quoting an inspirational verse from the Bible for personal encouragement, strength and inspiration. The verse she quoted at that meeting came from Isaiah 41:10: “Do not fear for I am with you; Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God.”
This often-quoted verse from the Old Testament, a verse that helped her prepare for her school board duties, drew multiple objections from inside and outside the school district. Days after the meeting she received a “cease and desist” letter from a secular organization and told she was in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and that she was not allowed to read scripture in her “official capacity” as a school board member.
Since the founding of our republic, elected officials have quoted sacred texts while carrying out their duties. Throughout history, in their “official capacity,” many Presidents have recognized or quoted religious texts they felt were appropriate for the occasion.
When President Lincoln addressed the nation at his second inauguration in 1865, he reminded Americans that the Book of Matthew teaches “[t]he Almighty has His own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses for it must needs be that offenses come but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’” When President Obama attended a somber event to console the families grieving in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting, he quoted from the Bible at the beginning and end of his short speech. “…do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away…inwardly we are being renewed day by day….”
First Liberty Institute is representing Heather Rooks and will make the case that citing a quotation from any text during a public meeting is completely protected under the free speech and free exercise clauses of the U.S. Constitution.
In September 2023, First Liberty Institute and the law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP filed a federal lawsuit against the Peoria Unified School District on behalf of Heather Rooks.
“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,” said First Liberty attorney, Andy Gould. “Public officials from Presidents Washington and Lincoln to President Biden routinely recited scriptures while performing their official duties. If it is okay for U.S. Presidents to quote the Bible, why can’t a Peoria school board member?”
For Immediate Release: 9.27.23
Contact: Peyton Luke, firstname.lastname@example.org
Arizona School Board Sued by Member for Censoring Scripture Reading at Meetings
School board member quoted scripture during regularly scheduled open comment period as encouragement to herself and others in attendance.
Phoenix, AZ—First Liberty Institute and the law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP filed a federal lawsuit against the Peoria Unified School District on behalf of Heather Rooks, a member of the board who was prohibited from quoting scripture during board meetings.
You can read the complaint here.
Andy Gould, Senior Counsel at First Liberty said, “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.”
Heather said, “I am grateful to be a part of the Peoria Unified School board. 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.”
Ms. Rooks began her term as an elected member of the Peoria School Board member in January 2023. During each Peoria School Board meeting, the agenda includes a brief “Board comments” period where individual board members may offer remarks of their own choosing. Since the beginning of her public service on the board, Ms. Rooks has opened her comments by quoting a short scripture from the Bible. The Peoria School Board subsequently received letters from anti-religious organizations demanding it stop Ms. Rooks from reading scripture. In August, the school board chairman instructed Ms. Rooks to stop quoting scripture during meeting time specifically set aside for board members to comment on any topic they choose.
According to the complaint, “Rooks’ recitation of a Bible passage, without comment, elaboration, or proselytization, during her Board comments doesn’t violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The Establishment Clause provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. Rooks’ practice accords with over 200 years of this Nation’s historical practices and understandings. See Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783, 786 (1983) (“The opening of sessions of legislative and other deliberative public bodies with prayer is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country.”). Public officials from Presidents Washington and Lincoln up through President Biden routinely recited scriptures while performing their official duties.”
About First Liberty Institute
First Liberty Institute is a non-profit public interest law firm and the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans.
To arrange an interview, contact Peyton Luke at email@example.com or by calling 972-941-4453.