Wednesday May 5, 2010

Florida School District Faces Lawsuit Over Ban on Religious Expression

PENSACOLA, Florida, May 5, 2010 ( – The Santa Rosa County School District faces a lawsuit from a Christian legal advocacy group for allegedly violating First Amendment rights of teachers, students, and other individuals by muzzling their ability to exercise their religious beliefs in public.

Liberty Counsel (LC) has filed a comprehensive lawsuit against the Santa Rosa County School District and its Superintendent, Timothy S. Wyrosdick, accusing them of persistent and widespread violations of First Amendment rights.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two dozen individuals, including teachers, staff, students, former students, parents, volunteers and local members of the community, all of whom say they have been silenced, censored, intimidated or harassed by the school district at the behest of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The school district had agreed to a Consent Decree drafted by the ACLU and entered by a federal court, that LC says criminalizes protected religious expression, such as voluntary, student-initiated prayers or off-the-clock religious discussion among adults.

The suit says that students can no longer say “God Bless,” Christian teachers are relegated to the closet as far as any manifestation of their beliefs go, parents cannot communicate frankly with teachers, volunteers cannot answer any questions regarding religion, Christian groups cannot rent school facilities for private religious functions benefiting students, and pastors are dictated how they can and cannot seat their audiences at private, religious baccalaureate services held inside their own houses of worship.

Initially, the ACLU got involved when two graduating minors and their parents appeared as plaintiffs in a complaint filed against the School Board, Superintendent, and H. Frank Lay in his official capacity as principal of Pace High School.

Rather than fight the complaint, the school district voluntarily agreed to pay off the ACLU with $200,000 in legal fees, and enter into a Consent Decree, which the lawsuit says contains “broad prohibitions against religious speech and expression” by school district employees “anytime those employees are present at a ‘School Event,’ regardless of whether they are there in their official or private capacity.”

School events are defined as “any happening sponsored, approved or supervised by a School Official.”

Liberty Counsel says three school officials have since faced civil and criminal contempt charges at the hands of the ACLU and the school district, and that many school employees are afraid of speaking out against the policy for fear of losing their jobs.

“The Consent Decree defines, and the School Board interprets, the word ‘Prayer’ broadly, to include not just communications with a deity in the traditional sense, where the person praying postures with head bowed, eyes closed and hands folded, but any form of religious expression or conduct, such as engaging in religious discourse, reading or discussing the Bible, or merely greeting other individuals with ‘God Bless You’ or ‘I am praying for you,’” says the lawsuit.

School officials torpedoed a thirty-year tradition of having the student body President address fellow students at Pace High School, because the student president for the 2008-2009 school year included in her speech a reference thanking God for her success and encouraged students to go out boldly into the world knowing God loves them and has great plans for them.

At Milton High School, one school official sternly warned every student at a practice for graduation exercises that anyone who would initiate or participate in any prayer during the graduation ceremony would be ejected immediately.

“Freedom fled from Santa Rosa County when the ACLU filed suit. Liberty Counsel intends to restore freedom and end the intimidation,” commented Mathew Staver, Founder of Liberty Counsel.

Liberty Counsel is seeking to have the court issue an injunction stopping enforcement on the Consent Decree, a declaratory judgment on the constitutionality of the order, and award damages to plaintiffs for violations of the United States Constitution.

The complaint and attached evidence can be found here.

See previous coverage by

400 Students Defy ACLU and Stand to Recite Lord’s Prayer at Graduation

Criminal Contempt Case Over Mealtime Prayer Goes to Trial Today

Florida Schools Charged with Violating Students’ Religious Freedom by Allowing Student Prayer at Graduations