Students, Legal Groups Stand Against Anti-Religious Court Order

The school year has officially ended for the students in Florida's Santa Rosa County School District but the controversies stemming from an anti-religious court order have not.

And they may not for up to the five years that all Santa Rosa County School District employees are banned from engaging in prayer or religious activities under the consent decree that resulted from a lawsuit filed six months ago by the ACLU.

"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.

But critics say the order has gone too far and not only violates the First Amendment rights of school faculty and staff, but also students, some of which have already felt the brunt of the decree.

Members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Christian World Order at Jay High School, for example, were denied access to benefits and privileges available to other student groups because of the religious nature of their speech. Teachers at the same school were also told not to participate in private baccalaureate services sponsored by a local ministerial association despite the fact that the school property was rented for the event in accordance with district policy.

"While we appreciate the District's concern for abiding by the recent Consent order ... treating FCA and CWO equally with other student clubs in no way violates this Order," wrote David A. Cortman, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, in a letter last month to the principal of Jay High School, the superintendent of the Santa Rosa County School District, and members of the Santa Rosa County School Board.

After receiving the letter, school officials reversed the decisions it had made, allowing FCA and CWO equal access to benefits and privileges and granting permission to teachers to attend private baccalaureate services.

But religious freedom groups say there is still work to do.

At Pace High School, the student body and senior class presidents were barred from speaking at their own graduation ceremony due fears of prosecution.

In response, nearly 400 graduating seniors stood up last Saturday during their commencement ceremony in protest against the ACLU and recited the Lord's Prayer. Many of the students also painted crosses on their graduation caps to make a statement of faith.

Though the ACLU has not taken any legal action yet, the legal group has stated that something should have been done to stop the prayer.

Mathew D. Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel and dean of Liberty University School of Law, however, argues that any attempt to make schools religion-free is unconstitutional.

"Neither students nor teachers shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate," he stated Thursday, the last day of school for students in the Santa Rosa district's eight high schools. "The students at Pace High School refused to remain silent and were not about to be bullied by the ACLU."

According to Staver, Liberty Counsel has decided to represent faculty, staff and students of Pace High School, "because the ACLU is clearly violating their First Amendment rights."

Notably, while the First Amendment stands against "establishment of religion" by the government, it also bars the government from "prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

In the consent decree, school officials are "permanently enjoined" from "promoting, advancing, endorsing, participating in, or causing Prayers" and also not allowed to "orally express personal religious beliefs to students during or in conjunction with instructional time or a School Event," among other requisites.

After five years, a court will discuss whether or not there is a need for further continuation of the order.