Heather Rooks, a mom who has four children in the school district, was prohibited from quoting scripture during Peoria School Board meetings. Rooks is being represented in her federal lawsuit by attorney Andrew Gould of First Liberty Institute.
"She got active in politics because she is civic-minded and she cares about her kids," Gould tells AFN. "So, she ran for the school board – and at the first meeting she went to, she noticed that, like a lot of school board meetings around the country, there is a lot of anger and acrimony."
Because Rooks is a woman of faith, says the attorney, she recited a Bible verse during the portion of the board meeting where each member is allowed to give comments of their own choosing.
"It was Joshua 1:9. She did it to give herself strength," Gould explains. "She wasn't saying it for anybody in the audience; she wasn't saying it to proselytize anyone. She relied upon her faith to give her strength and she felt that the Lord spoke to her about that verse."
Rooks continued with this practice during the open comment periods of board meetings. According to Gould, she would recite a verse quickly and then move on.
"This provoked a backlash with angry people coming to board meetings, sending complaints to the board – and eventually the board or the district said 'Stop reciting verses at the board meetings, you can't do that, it's a violation of the Establishment Clause.' That's when she reached out to us and we got involved," he explains.
Rooks filed a federal lawsuit this week against Peoria Unified School District. First Liberty is asking for (1) a declaration that her reading of a verse does not violate the Establishment Clause and that she has a right under the First Amendment free-speech clause and free-exercise clause to read her verse; and (2) an injunction enjoining the board or anyone from taking adverse action against her for exercising her constitutional rights.
Gould contends it is a wrong understanding of the First Amendment to say that reciting of scripture is barred by the Establishment Clause.
"By way of example, the city council opens every session with a prayer. So does the Arizona State Legislature," he argues. "Abraham Lincoln cited the Bible. So did Barack Obama, Joe Biden, George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt – they all cited Bible scriptures in speeches and in addresses …. It is part of the American political tradition of our society. There is nothing here that violates the Establishment Clause."
Gould also argues America needs more people like Heather Rooks. "Most people will not stand up in a situation like this, but she is brave and courageous – and this is the type of person who makes our democracy work: someone who is willing to stand up for her rights," he states.
Earlier this year, Rooks – as a newly elected member of the school board – alerted parents to a radical, transgender-affirming science textbook being considered for use in the district.