Federal Judge Approves Order Requiring Santa Rosa, FL Schools To Abide By First Amendment

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
May 8, 2009 12:00 am

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ACLU Lawsuit Results In Consent Decree Ensuring Religious Freedom For All Students

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PENSACOLA, FL – A federal judge today made public a consent decree requiring school officials in Santa Rosa County, Florida to stop promoting their personal religious beliefs in public schools.

The consent decree is the result of a lawsuit filed last year by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Florida on behalf of two Pace High School students who alleged that school officials regularly promoted religion and led prayers at school events. Among other things, it prohibits school officials from promoting or endorsing prayers during school functions and organizing school-sponsored religious services.

“The court has ensured that decisions about religion will be left in the hands of families and faith communities and not public school officials,” said Benjamin Stevenson, an ACLU of Florida staff attorney based in Pensacola who led the case. “Religious freedom is best promoted when the government stays out of religion. Now, students and their families can feel comfortable holding and expressing their own religious beliefs, knowing that school officials will no longer impose their particular religious beliefs on students at school. This is a truly victorious day for the Constitution and for religious freedom in Florida.”

The ACLU lawsuit was filed in August 2008 and charged school officials with committing widespread violations of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. After months of litigation and discovery, the school board, the superintendant and the principal filed an “Admission of Liability” with the court, owning up to the district-wide constitutional violations.

Following the school board’s admission, ACLU attorneys worked closely with district officials to develop an accord that would bring the school district into compliance with the U.S. and Florida Constitutions. The resulting consent decree, signed by U.S. District Court Judge M.C. Rodgers, states that:

• School officials’ promotion of their personal religious beliefs in school and at school functions violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and the “no aid” provision of the Florida Constitution;

• School officials are permanently prohibited from promoting, advancing, endorsing, participating in or causing prayers during or in conjunction with school events;

• School officials are permanently prohibited from planning, organizing, financing, promoting or sponsoring religious services, including baccalaureate services;

• School officials are permanently prohibited from holding school events at a religious venue when an alternative secular venue is reasonably suitable;

• School officials are permanently prohibited from promoting their personal religious beliefs to students in class or during a school event;

• The district shall pay damages to both plaintiffs in the amount of $1.00; and

• School officials shall comply with the Federal Equal Access Act.

“The parties’ agreement and the court’s order go a long way toward securing religious liberty in Santa Rosa County public schools,” said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “In our constitutional system, students and parents should have the right to practice their faith – or no faith at all – without school officials endorsing or promoting any particular religious viewpoints.”

The order also requires that school officials distribute it to all district employees.

Attorneys on the case are Mach and Heather Weaver from the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, and Stevenson, Glenn Katon, Randall Marshall and Maria Kayanan of the ACLU of Florida.

A copy of the consent decree is available online at: www.aclu.org/religion/schools/39547lgl20090508.html

Additional information about the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief is available online at: www.aclu.org/religion/index.html

Additional information about the ACLU of Florida is available online at: www.aclufl.org

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