A federal judge has turned down a Christian educators association’s motion to argue against an anti-religious and allegedly unconstitutional consent order imposed upon a Florida county school district.
In her 35-page ruling Friday, U.S. District Court Judge M. Casey Rodgers reiterated that Santa Rosa County School District officials are constitutionally obligated to ensure that teachers and other staff do not inculcate public school students with religion and that the Christian Educators Association International had no valid basis for seeking to have the consent decree ruled unconstitutional.
Therefore, Rodgers rejected CEAI’s motion to intervene in the lawsuit filed last year by the American Civil Liberties Union against the Florida county school district.
Daniel Mach, litigation director for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said he believes Friday’s ruling “safeguards religious freedom for all in the Santa Rosa County schools.”
“As the court concluded, the consent decree appropriately protects both aspects of the fundamental religious liberty enshrined in the Constitution: the right to exercise one's faith and the right to be free from government-imposed religion,” he stated.
While CEAI and Liberty Counsel – which filed the motion last July on behalf of CEAI – did not immediately comment on Rodger’s decision, the groups had previously insisted that the consent order against the Santa Rosa County School District was overly broad and essentially bans all employees from engaging in prayer or religious activities, whether before, during, or after school hours.
“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,” Fla.-based Liberty Counsel reported after it filed CEAI’s motion.
Furthermore, 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 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,” it added.
The controversial consent order came about after the ACLU filed a complaint in August 2008 against the School Board for Santa Rosa County, accusing the district of sponsoring prayer at school events, orchestrating religious baccalaureate services, and proselytizing students during class and extra-curricular activities.
The school district, in response, 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 Mach after the judge’s ruling in January 2009.
Liberty Counsel, however, later argued that the order is so broad that it unconstitutionally infringes on the rights of teachers, administrators, and students.
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 Consent Order, which they see to be unconstitutional.
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.”
CEAI has historically encouraged its members by informing them that they do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door and that schools are not religion free zones.