School board seats across the United States were arguably some of the most heated races of the 2022 midterm elections. For years, school board campaigns remained non-partisan. However, with education issues taking center stage regarding such contentious issues as transgenderism, school boards have emerged as new political and cultural battlegrounds between the political left and the right.
In the last few years, hundreds of conservative parents ran for local school board seats nationwide. Heather Rooks is among them.
Rooks has been married for 10 years and is a stay-at-home mom of four children. She is also a Peoria Unified School District board member in Arizona where she lives. Recently, she made headlines after quoting Scripture at a school board meeting, then receiving a letter telling her to stop quoting the Bible.
Rooks and her lawyer Andrew Gould, a senior counsel at First Liberty and a former justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, spoke with Jovan Tripkovic, an editorial fellow at Religion Unplugged, to discuss the case. They also talked about her role at the Peoria School Board and why she decided to run for the seat.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Tripkovic: What made you decide to run for the Peoria School Board?
Rooks: During COVID parents didn’t really know what school board meetings were and what the roles were. I started to go to the meetings, understand, listen and hear the concerns that were brought forward by parents and their kids. It gave me the inspiration to run. I’ve never done it before. I looked to God to help me through the first time experience of running for school board. That’s the reason why I wanted to run for school board.
Tripkovic: What’s the biggest issue of public K-12 education?
Rooks: I think that there is just an overall need of listening to the parents, because it’s their children! This is their children’s education! The biggest thing right now is really listening to those parents and what their kids need in the educational setting in the classroom. And working on that relationship with parents in the classroom for their kids to succeed. That’s the biggest thing right now!
Tripkovic: Tell us about your campaign for the Peoria School Board.
Rooks: I ran on being open and transparent with the parents. I had heard the concerns that they had. They were disappointed hearing things that were going on in their kids’ classrooms. They really wanted that trust brought back. I wanted more transparency on the school board, because I thought that that was very important. Also, I ran on strong academics. Making sure that these kids can read and do math. And that they are excelling in those academic areas that they’re going to need later on in life. That’s the biggest thing right now on parents’ minds. That’s what I ran on! I got around 42 thousand votes in the school board race. I was told that it’s the most votes in the Peoria Unified School Board race for any contestant.
Tripkovic: What concrete actions did you take in order to fulfill your campaign promises?
Rooks: Right now, the biggest thing I provide is transparency. If there are things going on I make sure that parents are aware of it. I’m very communicative. I reach out to parents. I want them to know that I’m going to be open and honest about their children and their education. It’s important for parents to have that open relationship and honesty.
Tripkovic: Your legal troubles started after you quoted a verse from the Bible. Why did you decide to quote the Bible at the school board meeting?
Rooks: I did the first one in January of the school year. I read the verse to give me strength, and to have His word bring me calmness and strength. Hearing those words out loud, brought the courage from Him through me to make these big decisions when it came to children.
Tripkovic: Why Joshua 1:9? Is that your favorite verse?
Rooks: That verse really spoke to me through this experience of running for a school board seat. God reached out to me through that verse. It’s my favorite one! I read that verse a lot, to keep myself with that strength. It says: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous? Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” It spoke to me with that verse and taking on this role as a governing board member.
Tripkovic: After quoting Bible verses at the school board meeting, your client received a cease-and-desist letter. What is a cease and desist letter? What are legal implications it might have on your client’s involvement with the Peoria School Board?
Gould: They told her to stop quoting Bible verses at school board meetings! That was the trigger for us, filing our lawsuit. That is denying her constitutional rights and free exercise of her religion. That’s the impact of it. When you tell a person you cannot cite a Bible verse because you’re on the school board, then you’re denying the First Amendment rights. Simple as that. There’s nothing that prevents a public official from citing Scripture. Nothing in the Constitution. They do it all the time! [Former President Barack] Obama’s done it! George Washington did it! All presidents, public officials have cited Bible verses. To tell Heather that she can’t cite a Bible verse for encouragement, is clearly a constitutional violation.
A cease-and-desist letter simply tells her she can’t cite Bible verses. They were concerned about outside groups that were threatening to sue the Peoria School District. In the light of these threats from some of these groups, the school district attorney told Heather that she can’t cite versus anymore. They didn’t say what the next step was in that letter. They just said, you can’t do this anymore because we are facing legal consequences from this. There’s an implication that she may have violated an open meeting law. But there’s really nothing specific in the letter other than telling her to stop.
Tripkovic: You already made a name for yourself in Arizona politics. Kari Lake (former candidate for Arizona’s governor) endorsed you. Blake Masters (former candidate for U.S. Senate) follows you on X. One could argue that this is your way to gain attention and propel your political career?
Rooks: I’ve never done this before. I’ve never run for an office. I am a stay-at-home mom with four children. I wanted to run to help address some of the issues in this district where I grew up. This is about the kids. This is about their education! I heard concerns from parents, and I didn’t want to just sit by and not do anything. That was my biggest motivation! I wanted to help these people! God called on us to help. I don’t have any political career aspirations. I want parents to be aware of what is going on and to assist them when they need it and ask for help.
Tripkovic: So we won’t see you running for a higher office in the coming years?
Rooks: I have no desire to run for higher office. I have four little children. No! That is not my plan in the future.
Tripkovic: The president of the Peoria School Board mentioned the establishment clause and your client acting against it. You clearly disagree with him. Why?
Gould: The Establishment Clause doesn’t require religion to be hidden behind the doors of someone’s home or shut behind the doors of the church. The Establishment Clause is meant to keep the government out of religion. Not to sideline religion, so no one can see it or hear it. The Establishment Clause works with the Free Exercise Clause. They’re both in the First Amendment. They’re read together and they work together. The Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause are not against each other. They’re not pitted against each other. Somehow we’ve gotten into this mindset that the Establishment Clause is a bar or works against the Free Exercise Clause. That’s not true!
The law has changed greatly in the past five or six years. The Supreme Court has opened up the ability of all people to express their religion in public, especially for public officials. Some of the people on the other side are working with outdated understandings of constitutional law and the Establishment Clause.
Tripkovic: What legal actions have you already taken? And what are your next steps?
Gould: We filed the complaint which starts the case in federal court. The next step was, we had to serve it. We have just finished serving it. On the other side, an attorney appeared for the school district and has agreed to accept service of a complaint. We’ll expect an answer from them, or maybe a motion to dismiss, some type of response from the school district. After that, our next step will either be to file a motion for summary judgment or a motion for preliminary injunction.
Tripkovic: Last year, a few days before the Supreme Court ruling, I interviewed coach Kennedy. Are there any parallels between his and Heather’s case?
Gould: I do. They’re both people of tremendous character and strength. They’re very similar personally that way. In terms of cases, it’s once again public officials displaying their faith consistent with their First Amendment rights. Coach Kennedy chose to do it on a football field after a game. Heather chooses to encourage herself at a board meeting by reciting a verse from the Bible. They don’t proselytize! They’re not trying to convert anybody! They’re just exercising their freedom of religion, their religious liberty. Two public officials doing it in different ways.
Tripkovic: Do you believe this case can gain national attention and go all the way up to the Supreme Court?
Gould: It’s hard to predict with this case. Just getting a petition for a cert in front of the Supreme Court is a long legal process. They only take 50 to a 100 out of eight thousand petitions a year. It’s highly unusual for a case to make it all the way to the Supreme Court. That being said, this case is a lot like Coach Kennedy’s case, and it certainly has the potential to set a national precedent. We’ll see!