County, TN schools hit with religion-related lawsuit
Action claims student was beaten, harassed for being
By JENNIFER LAWSON, February
India Tracy came to expect being sent to the principal's
office even though she was a well-behaved, straight-A student.
But the Union County
youngster knew she'd probably be the only student with "no" written
on the permission slip to attend a tent revival during school hours. When she
declined to portray Mary in a Christmas play, she also was sent to the
and her parents, Greg and Sarajane Tracy, allege other students taunted her,
beat her and ridiculed her religion for years. Fed up with the treatment, her
parents filed a federal lawsuit on her behalf Thursday.
The lawsuit claims the Union
County school system violated India's
civil rights by promoting and endorsing religious activities, denied her right
to freely exercise her religion and failed to protect her from harassment and
physical and verbal abuse.
The first time the Tracys
declined to allow their daughter to attend the two-hour, fundamental Christian
services held over three days was in 1999, when she was in the fourth grade.
The family had bought 11 acres in Union
County because they thought the
area was beautiful.
"The principal had called me to the office because mine
was the only slip that said no," said India,
now 14. "He asked me why I didn't want to go. He asked my religion. I told
him I didn't want to talk about it and for him to call my parents."
Sarajane Tracy told the principal that she also did not want
to discuss religion because she didn't think it belonged in school, she said.
The family could be anything - Buddhist, Jewish or Islamic - and it shouldn't
matter, she said. The family follows the ancient religious tradition of
Paganism, which embraces kinship with nature, positive morality and
acknowledges both the female and male side of Deity, according to the Pagan
was the only student left in her class during the Area Wide Crusade in April
1999, so her classmates knew she hadn't gone. The crusade was begun in 1998 by
a Union County Baptist pastor and is planned for this April as well.
While declining to comment on the lawsuit, school system
Director James Pratt said the ministry rents school buses for transporting the
students and some teachers act as chaperones but they must use a personal day
to do so.
He referred other questions to Nashville
attorney Charles Cagle. Cagle declined comment because he had not seen a copy
of the lawsuit Thursday afternoon.
The name-calling and rumor spreading began soon after the
1999 revival, India
and her parents said.
Between 1999 and February 2002 when her parents removed her
from Horace Maynard
Middle School, the lawsuit alleges:
was repeatedly called "Satan worshipper," "witch" and other
derogatory names. She was accused of eating babies and of being a lesbian
because she wasn't a Christian, the lawsuit said.
was forced to attend regular Bible study classes during the school day, and
urged to lead the school and her class in prayer.
---That derogatory names were written on her locker in
permanent ink and the school refused to paint over the graffiti or move her
--- That India
was repeatedly attacked as she knelt in front of her bottom-row locker. Her
head was bashed at least 10 times, cutting her lip, above her eyes and
bloodying her nose.
--- That a teacher told India
to "keep quiet because you'll get in trouble" after she wrote a paper
about religious freedom.
--- That a bus driver regularly asked India
in front of other students if she had gone to church yet and if she'd like to
come to church.
The Tracys' Knoxville
attorney, Margaret Held, said the family did not want to sue. They just wanted
their daughter to attend a safe school without persecution.
"They tried being quiet about it and that didn't
work," she said. "I would hope that the people in Union
County who have been killing their
goats and beating up their kid are a minority. If there's one thing that Christ
taught, it was tolerance."
During her years at Sharps
Chapel Elementary School
and later at the middle school, India
maintained top-notch grades. She also was one of the few girl players on the
football team, played in the band and belonged to the Beta Club and Chess Club.
Her parents pulled her out of public school nearly a year
ago, after a friend of hers called to say she'd been suggesting suicide. She
was diagnosed with anxiety and has been home-schooled since then.
The suit seeks $300,000 in damages to pay India's
tuition to a private school, legal fees and the cost of psychological
counseling. The suit also seeks a court prohibition against "the school
system's continued religious indoctrination of children."
"Maybe it will be a harsh enough lesson so the next
child in Union County
who's different can continue through school and graduate and feel safe,"
Sarajane Tracy said.
Jennifer Lawson can be reached at 865-342-6316 or
Copyright 2003, Knoxville