By Kathleen Gilbert

PENSACOLA, FL, August 29, 2008 ( – Parents representing students who feel their religious rights have been violated by school policy have filed a lawsuit against Santa Rosa County school officials for exerting “subtle coercive pressures” to accept their personal religious beliefs by creating prayerful environments at official functions.

The American Civil Liberties Union press release said that the defendants will be on trial for violating the religious freedom of their students by “promoting and endorsing prayers at graduation ceremonies and other school events, of sponsoring religious ceremonies and holding official school events at churches.” 

Prosecutors allege that the public school officials did not adequately disassociate the school from religious baccalaureate ceremonies, and used their official positions to promote their own personal religious views. 

Central, Jay, Milton, Navarre and Pace High Schools have allowed students to pray publicly during commencement ceremonies over the past five years.  Santa Rosa Adult School and Santa Rosa Learning Academy have also included prayer in their graudation ceremonies.

Prosecutors claim in the official lawsuit that the school officials’ “policies, practices, and customs impose on [the students] subtle coercive pressures to suppress their personal religious beliefs and to adopt school officials’ favored religious beliefs or risk incurring the disfavor of school officials.”

The prayer at school events is called “particularly coercive” because it forces the student to choose either to forgo school activities and avoid “unwanted exposure to religious iconography” or attend and “conform to the religious dictates of the School District.”

The lawsuit goes on to accuse defendants of restricting religious expression by reviewing prayers that the students themselves wished to present, so as to edit for content, and retaining veto power over the student’s suggestions.

When contacted one of the defendants to ask about the litigation, he declined to comment, saying that he had been instructed by his attorney not to speak to the press.

Kyle Angeles, an 18-year-old graduate of one of the schools, told The Pensacola News Journal that the prayer at school functions did not make him uncomfortable.  “I don’t think anyone’s beliefs should be forced upon others,” he said. “But, most school-sponsored events are not mandatory, and students have a choice as to whether or not to attend.”

To see the ACLU press release:

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