An Arizona school board member said she is no longer allowed to read from the Bible during board meetings after she was told it is illegal to do so, according to a federal lawsuit she filed.
Heather Rooks read one scripture at every meeting for the Peoria Unified School District Governing Board to prepare herself for her duties, her attorneys said in a press release.
But in July, she felt “compelled to stop” after the board sent her a letter stating that reciting the verses violated the Establishment Clause, which “prohibits the government from establishing a religion.”
She’s now suing the Peoria Unified School District, alleging that quoting from any text during a public meeting is protected free speech.
“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,” attorney Andy Gould with First Liberty Institute said in a statement. “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.”
Rooks would recite the verses during a “Board comments” portion of the meetings, which allowed board members to make remarks or discuss topics that were not on the agenda, according to the lawsuit.
“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.”
Heather Rooks.Peoria Unified School District
During her first board meeting on Jan. 12, she recited Joshua 1:9, thanked her supporters and “promised to stand firm in her service to the community,” the suit reads.
For months after that, she continued to read from the Bible at meetings.
The suit says that Rooks never asked or prompted anyone else to acknowledge the scriptures. After reciting them, she would thank teachers and parents, acknowledge any upcoming holidays or bring attention to any issues affecting the district, according to the lawsuit.
Following a Feb. 9 meeting, the legal director for Secular AZ, a nonprofit group “that protects the constitutional separation of church and state,” allegedly submitted a complaint to the board that Rooks’ recitation of the Bible was “unconstitutional proselytizing.”
In response to the complaint, the board’s legal counsel told board members in an email that they couldn’t pray or recite scripture during meetings, the lawsuit says.
At a March 9 meeting, Rooks started to recite 1 Corinthians 16:13 prompting the board president to interrupt her “to tell her that ‘reciting scripture at a board meeting on this side of the dais goes against the Establishment Clause,'” according to the lawsuit.
As Rooks continued to read the scriptures, more alleged complaints were made against her. In May, the Freedom From Religion Foundation told the board it needed to “take whatever action necessary to ensure that Ms. Rooks and all other members of the Board respect the constitutional rights of the Peoria Unified School District community.”
The group, which works as an “umbrella for those who are free from religion,” said that if the board didn’t take action it could face “unnecessary liability and potential financial strain.”
Rooks ultimately decided to stop reciting Bible verses due to “months of sustained external pressure from outside activist groups and internal pressure from the Board itself,” the suit says.
The school district did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday. Secular AZ’s executive director said in a statement on Sept. 29 that Rooks’ lawsuit was another “long string of bullying behaviors aimed at intimidation of the Board, a usurpation of legitimate authority, and an enforcement of Christian nationalists’ dogma.”
“As a private individual, Rooks is free to practice as she sees fit. As a school board member, she must follow the law,” executive director Jeanne Casteen said.
Rooks said in a statement via her attorneys that she believed “quoting scripture out loud to be encouraging to myself and to many in attendance.”
Minyvonne Burke is a senior breaking news reporter for NBC News.