ACLU Files Lawsuit To Protect Religious Freedom Of Florida High School Students
Santa Rosa County School Officials Misuse Public Positions To Promote Their Religious Viewpoints
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PENSACOLA, FL – 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 government should not be in the business of deciding which religions to promote,” said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “Individuals, families and religious communities should be free to make their own decisions about religion.”
A copy of the lawsuit can be found online at: www.aclu.org/religion/schools/36566lgl20080827.html
Additional information about the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief can be found online at: www.aclu.org/religion/index.html
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The American Civil Liberties Union is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States of America.
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The ACLU strives to safeguard the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty by ensuring that laws and governmental practices neither promote religion nor interfere with its free exercise.