BATON ROUGE — The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Louisiana expressed alarm about a “Day of Hope” event sponsored by the East Baton Rouge School System (EBRS) earlier this month, during which students were reportedly subjected to religious proselytizing, and female students were singled out for instruction in sexual abstinence and told by one speaker that they should practice forgiveness of those who sexually assault them. Transgender students also reported suffering discrimination and bullying during the event.

In a letter sent to EBRS officials, the ACLU and the ACLU of Louisiana warned that the Day of Hope, which was held at a church and co-sponsored by a local religious organization, likely violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. 

“All students have the right to be treated equally in school, no matter their sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or faith,” said ACLU of Louisiana Advocacy Director Chris Kaiser. “East Baton Rouge Schools’ Day of Hope subjected students to differential treatment based on harmful sex stereotypes, in the context of school-sponsored religious programming, and without families’ consent. We are all free to exercise our religious beliefs individually, but it is never the government’s role to promote or endorse a specific religious viewpoint. It is imperative that EBRS remembers its constitutional duties to its students.”

On September 20, over 2,000 high school seniors were bussed to an event co-sponsored by EBRS and the 29:11 Academy, a Christian organization whose namesake is the Bible verse Jeremiah 29:11. During the event, students were separated by sex, and at least one transgender boy was initially prohibited from going with his male classmates. Girls were instructed in abstinence, “modesty,” and forgiving instances of sexual violence or abuse. The male students received no such instruction and were instead encouraged to compete in push-up contests for money. 

The permission slip distributed before the Day of Hope falsely told parents the event was a college and career fair and made no mention of its religious nature or the plans to separate students by sex, promote abstinence for girls, and suggest that girls should forgive sexual violence. 

“Treating public school students differently based on their gender is simply wrong-headed. All students—not only girls—need to understand the perils of sexual violence, and all students—not only boys—need exercise,” said Amy L. Katz, Cooperating Attorney for the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. “Although promoting abstinence is demonstrably less effective than comprehensive sex education for students of any gender, giving only girls an abstinence lecture is unjustifiable and reeks of archaic stereotypes.”

“This incident is precisely why schools must know their obligations to students and families under the Constitution and federal law,” said Taylor Brown, Staff Attorney for the ACLU’s LGBTQ & HIV Project. “Public schools may not sponsor events of a religious nature. Nor may they ignore the harassment of transgender students, or invoke gender stereotypes and expectations that should be long buried in the past. East Baton Rouge officials must understand that the content of this program has no place in public schools.”