Constitutional Bully?: La. School Board Member Must Learn Religious Freedom Is No License To Discriminate

Religious freedom is an extremely important right that is enshrined in the Constitution. But that concept cannot be turned into a club and used to attack others – metaphorically or literally.

It’s frustrating when a single misguided public official tries to hijack an otherwise reasonable governing body, and that’s almost what happened last week when a school board member in a Louisiana jurisdiction attempted to cut discrimination based on sexual orientation from an anti-bullying policy.

The Orleans Parish School Board was considering some very minor changes to its policy against bullying, which says that a whole slew of bad things won’t be tolerated. These include discrimination based on race, religion, gender/sexual orientation and the like; the policy also defines bullying and mandates teachers to monitor and report bad behavior.

Not many people would take issue with something like that. Apparently board Vice President Leslie Ellison isn’t most people.

Back in 2012, the New Orleans Times-Picayune said, she argued that charter schools should be able to exclude gay students as part of their right to “religious freedom.”  This makes no sense, of course, because charter schools are public institutions.

This week, Ellison along with board member Cynthia Cade, said the parish anti-bullying policy shouldn’t be so clear cut. The Times-Picayune reported that Ellison went on to claim that banning discrimination based on sexual orientation would necessitate teaching 5-year-olds about gay sex.

Ellison was also asked at one point during the meeting how she feels about church-state separation. Her response? “There is no such thing.” No surprise there.

At one point, the debate turned ugly. Another board member, Seth Bloom, who happens to be gay, said to Ellison, “I just find it perplexing that certain minorities seek protection for certain minorities but not for others.”

Ellison, who is African American, replied, “This has nothing to do with being black. I can't change my blackness at all.”

So not only is Ellison a budding theocrat who seems to have a blasé attitude when it comes to bullying certain groups of people, she also makes claims about homosexuality that have absolutely no basis in fact or reality.

Ultimately the anti-bullying policy was left alone, as Ellison and Cade lost on a 5-2 vote.

This debate was a pretty sad turn of events for a school board that recently voted to keep religion out of science classes, but at least the majority didn’t go along with Ellison’s narrow-minded agenda.

The Religious Right has been saying for years that “religious freedom” should grant the faithful exemptions from all sorts of laws, and this anti-bullying debate is just one of many examples.

Religious freedom is an extremely important right that is enshrined in the Constitution. But that concept cannot be turned into a club and used to attack others – metaphorically or literally.   

We can never allow religion to be used as an excuse to bully. That’s not something we at Americans United will ever tolerate. Fortunately most of the Orleans Parish School Board seems to feel the same way.