Christian Educators, Legal Group Take Action Against Anti-Religious Order

A Christian legal group has filed a motion to intervene in a lawsuit that resulted in an anti-religious and allegedly unconstitutional consent order against a Florida county school district.

Liberty Counsel filed the motion on behalf of Christian Educators Association International (CEAI) this past week, insisting that the overly broad consent order against the Santa Rosa County School District essentially bans all employees from engaging in prayer or religious activities, whether before, during, or after school hours.

"Neither students nor teachers shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate," stated Mathew D. Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel and dean of Liberty University School of Law.

"Not only does the ACLU want to strip public school employees of their rights to free speech while working, the ACLU is now arguing that they lose their rights after work and off campus. Public school employees are not required to abandon their faith to feed their families," he added.

It was in August 2008 that the ACLU filed the complaint against the School Board for Santa Rosa County for the district's alleged sponsoring of prayer at school events, orchestrating of religious baccalaureate services, and proselytizing of students during class and extra-curricular activities.

In response, the school district attempted to settle the suit by joining with the ACLU and presenting the court with a consent order that "permanently enjoined" school officials from "promoting, advancing, endorsing, participating in, or causing Prayers."

Without any legal argument or briefing, the judge signed the order, which also bars school officials from "orally express[ing] personal religious beliefs to students during or in conjunction with instructional time or a School Event."

"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," said Daniel Mach, director of litigation for the ACLU's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, after January's ruling.

Liberty Counsel, however, argues that the order is so broad that it unconstitutionally infringes on the rights of teachers, administrators, and students.

"The ACLU's consent order broadly defines prayer, school events, and school officials so that employees who bow their head or fold their hands, pray over meals during their lunch, or voice agreement with another's religious discussion at any time on school property or at any school event can be found in contempt of court," the legal group reported.

"When private third parties use school facilities for after-school religious events or church services, no district employee on his or her own private time may participate or communicate agreement in any prayer or religious discourse, even if he or she is attending the event voluntarily, outside of school hours," the group added.

As a result, Liberty Counsel decided to represent faculty, staff and students of the school district – particularly certain members of the CEAI who are employed by the Santa Rosa County School Board and are opposed to the unconstitutional Consent Order.

On behalf of CEAI, Liberty Counsel will argue that the consent order is too broad and thus unconstitutional.

"The terms of the consent order violate the free speech and free exercise rights of CEAI members, both in their capacities as employees of the School Board and as private citizens," Liberty Counsel reported. "The order also forces CEAI members to infringe upon the rights of students and other third parties."

Established in 1953, CEAI is a nonprofit religious association whose mission is to "serve the educational community by encouraging, equipping and empowering Christian educators serving in public and private schools."

The Santa Rosa County School District, located in northwest Florida, consists of 18 elementary schools, 7 middle schools, 6 high schools and 4 specialty schools.

The first day of school for the 2009-2010 school year is Aug. 24.