Dispatches from the Creation Wars

ACLU Sues Florida School District

The ACLU of Florida has filed suit against the Santa Rosa County School District in Florida over what they call a pervasive pattern of promoting religion. You can view the press release here. Long excerpt below the fold:

Santa Rosa County school officials are using their governmental positions to promote their personal religious beliefs in public schools, according to a lawsuit filed today on behalf of two Pace High School students by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the national ACLU.

The lawsuit reveals a repeated pattern by school officials – including Santa Rosa County School Board members and Pace High School Principal H. Frank Lay – of promoting and endorsing prayers at graduation ceremonies and other school events, of sponsoring religious ceremonies and holding official school events at churches.

“Parents, not the public schools, should be responsible for deciding whether their children receive religious education,” said Benjamin Stevenson, staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida’s Northwest Region office. “Religious freedom is eroded when the government endorses any particular religious viewpoint.”

According to the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern district of Florida, graduation ceremonies during the past five years at Central, Jay, Milton, Navarre and Pace High Schools have included prayers by students – often members of groups like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes or the Christian World Order. The graduation ceremonies at Santa Rosa Adult School and Santa Rosa Learning Academy also have included prayers.

School administrators and teachers also mix their responsibilities as public officials with their personal religious beliefs by planning baccalaureates, helping to decide the place of worship at which they would be held and leading prayers with students. Additionally, school officials have interjected their own religious perspectives at elementary school graduations, a middle school Christmas concert, and high school football and cheerleading banquets.

The lawsuit also documents how teachers and staff at Pace High School preach about “judgment day with the Lord” and offer Bible readings and biblical interpretations during student meetings. While such activities are constitutionally protected at private schools and in religious communities, the government should not be involved in making such decisions.

The full complaint is here. The school apparently opens up its graduation ceremonies with a prayer by the president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. I’ve long been an advocate of allowing graduation speakers, if they are picked by an objective process, to talk about religion all they want because they speak for themselves and not the school. But if the school is actually scheduling a prayer and asking someone to deliver it, that’s clearly a violation of Supreme Court precedent. In at least one case, the prayer was led by a teacher. In this case, the school actually approves the text of the prayers as well; this is clearly government speech.

The school also sponsors and plans a religious baccalaureate service, hosted at a church with school-issued requirements for dress, for attendance, for hymns to be sung all planned by the school – with school officials often presiding over the religious service. They’ve also held events like an elementary school graduation at an Assembly of God church when suitable facilities were available at the school.

There’s much more in the complaint. This could be an interesting case to watch.