Federal Judge Orders Santa Rosa School District to Discontinue Religious Advancement

United States District Court Judge M. Casey Rodgers granted a preliminary injunction late Friday in the highly publicized American Civil Liberties Union case seeking to prevent Santa Rosa County School District officials from proselytizing and conducting other religious activities in public schools.

The court’s order requires school officials to discontinue myriad policies and practices that promote religion throughout district schools.

The decision follows the school district’s admission to the court that it has violated students’ constitutional rights by persistently and pervasively sponsoring prayer at school events, such as graduations, orchestrating religious baccalaureate services, and proselytizing students during class and extra-curricular activities.

ACLU attorneys attempted to work with the school district for two years prior to filing litigation.

“The School District ultimately did the right thing in admitting and accepting responsibility for its violations of students’ constitutional rights,” said Benjamin James Stevenson, principal litigator and staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida’s Northwest Regional office. “We are pleased with Friday’s decision, and we look forward to working with the defendants and the court to permanently bring the school district in line with the First Amendment.”

The ACLU of Florida filed the lawsuit, along with the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, in August 2008 on behalf of two Pace High School students. The complaint, which named the Santa Rosa County School Board, the district’s superintendent, and the principal at Pace High School as defendants, charged that school officials committed widespread violations of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the US. Constitution. On December 15, 2008, the school board, the superintendant and the principal filed an “Admission of Liability” with the Court, owning up to the district-wide constitutional violations.

The preliminary injunction entered in Friday by the Court prohibits all district officials from:
• promoting or sponsoring prayers during school-sponsored events, including graduation;

• planning or financing religious baccalaureate services;

• holding school-sponsored events at religious venues when
alternative venues are reasonably available; and

• permitting school officials to promote their personal religious beliefs and proselytize students in class or during school-sponsored events and activities.

The parties and the court will work together to fashion permanent relief reflecting these principles.

“Parents, not public schools, have the right to control the religious education of their children,” said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “The Court’s order, based on the defendants’ own admissions, will help ensure that public school officials do not inject their personal religious beliefs into the students’ education.”

Attorneys on the case include: Stevenson, Glenn Katon, Randall Marshall, and Maria Kayanan, all with the ACLU of Florida; and Mach and Heather Weaver with the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.


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