Arizona School Board Becomes Religious Freedom Battleground
Local school boards across the country have risen to prominence as they’ve found themselves at the center of national debates about parental rights, freedom of speech, and protecting children from pornographic material. Issues in public schools — and the school boards themselves — have led a wave of conservatives and Christians to run for positions on school boards across the country. Heather Rooks is one such Christian who earned a spot on the Peoria Unified School Board in Arizona this January. Now, that school board is at the center of a religious freedom case after prohibiting Rooks from referencing the Bible in her remarks.
According to First Liberty, the law firm now representing her, Rooks quickly found her new role on the school board challenging and stressful. To calm her nerves at school board meetings, she decided to start her remarks for her first meeting with a Bible verse for encouragement. That verse was Isaiah 41:10: “Do not fear for I am with you; Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God.”
Rooks continued to share a different Bible verse during each school board meeting, though she was hit with criticism from both inside and outside of the school board. A secular organization eventually sent a “cease and desist” letter which said Rooks must stop quoting “incendiary Christian verses.” Astonishingly, the letter accused Rooks of violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and stated that while she was acting in her “official capacity,” she could not read Scripture. The Peoria governing board’s attorney reenforced the organization’s warning, advising that all school board members should not quote the Bible in public meetings.
Newsflash for anyone that might criticize Rooks: The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prevents the government from establishing a state religion, which Rooks was not attempting to do in her capacity as a school board member. The Clause does not prevent government officials from quoting the Bible in public speeches. If it did, a great many Founding Fathers, U.S. presidents throughout American history, and current politicians and officials at all levels of government would be guilty of violating the Constitution. The complaint against Rooks is a gross attempt to re-define the words of the First Amendment. It will be struck down in court, and we should all be quick to strike it down in the court of public opinion as well.
Perhaps radical secularists consider Rook’s quoting of Scripture to be provocative, but religious believers know the importance of being able to reference a sacred text. Whether or not everyone in the room adheres to any given faith or not, it can offer inspiration to anyone. And even if the quotes do not inspire, the First Amendment clearly protects peaceful religious expression in the public square.
To her credit, Rooks did not accept this bogus threat and allow it to silence her. In September 2023, First Liberty Institute and the law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP filed a lawsuit against the Peoria Unified School District on Rooks’s behalf. First Liberty stated that they will rightly make the argument in their lawsuit 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.”
When she ran for school board, Rooks could hardly image that she would be involved in a lawsuit less than one full year into her first term. Yet, in an interview with The Daily Signal, she said it was important to stand up for her First Amendment rights “because it goes back to that saying His words out loud at these board meetings when I’m making such big decisions. Saying those words, it really gives me that strength to do these type of roles.”
Standing up for what’s right on a school board might draw criticism, but Rooks thinks this should not scare anyone out of running for school board. When asked what encouragement she would offer those seeking a position on a school board, she told The Daily Signal, “If that is what God is calling on their hearts, then that is what we’re told to do. We’re told to listen to Him because he’s got us. He’s not going to let us falter.”
School boards still need bold, faithful Christians to step up and serve in this capacity. In fact, if you feel called to run for school board, FRC Action recorded its School Board Boot Camp that explains how to run for school board and the types of situations you may face when you get there. If you do end up serving on a school board, don’t let anyone bully you out of quoting the Bible if you choose to do so — it is your constitutional right.
Arielle Del Turco is Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council, and co-author of "Heroic Faith: Hope Amid Global Persecution."