Students at Pace High School in Florida are protesting the removal of two fellow classmates who were barred from speaking at their own graduation ceremony due fears of prosecution.
Earlier this month, a federal judge made public a consent decree requiring school officials in Florida’s Santa Rosa County to stop promoting their personal religious beliefs in public schools following complaints filed on behalf of two students.
"Religious freedom is best promoted when the government stays out of religion,” said Benjamin Stevenson, an ACLU of Florida staff attorney based in Pensacola who led the case.
“Now, students and their families can feel comfortable holding and expressing their own religious beliefs, knowing that school officials will no longer impose their particular religious beliefs on students at school. This is a truly victorious day for the Constitution and for religious freedom in Florida," he added.
As a result of the decree, however, two students who were expected to speak at their graduation ceremony were reportedly removed from the lineup out of what the nearby Pace Assembly Ministries believes is concern that they would refer to their personal religious beliefs during their speeches.
“Our student body and senior class presidents have been cut from speaking at our graduation,” Carson Howton, a senior at Pace High, told the local Pensacola News Journal.
“It’s been a tradition at our school for student leaders to speak,” he said.
According to Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick, the two student speakers were removed as the result of new guidelines developed that limit student speakers to valedictory addresses and salutatory addresses.
“We need to be legally sound and heed to maintaining good, solid procedures that will avoid any violations of the law, and we need to remain within the law,” he told the News Journal.
But critics of the move say such fears of violations are unfounded as the judge’s orders focused on the actions of school officials and not students - even students serving as leaders of the student body.
“In a document entitled, ‘Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools,’ the DOE (U.S. Department of Education) has issued guidelines to schools that reinforce the Supreme Court decisions protecting the rights of students in schools,” notes Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, in a statement on the rights of students.
According to the guidelines, school officials may not mandate or organize prayer at graduation or select speakers for such events in a manner that favors religious speech such as prayer.
However, where students or other private graduation speakers are “selected on the basis of genuinely neutral, evenhanded criteria and retain primary control over the content of their expression,” that expression is not attributable to the school and therefore may not be restricted because of its religious (or anti-religious) content.
“To avoid any mistaken perception that a school endorses student or other private speech that is not in fact attributable to the school, school officials may make appropriate, neutral disclaimers to clarify that such speech (whether religious or nonreligious) is the speaker's and not the school's,” the guidelines advise.
In protest of the removal of the two student speakers, students have organized a prayer walk, set for 8 a.m. Monday at Pace High School.
A “Students Rights Rally” has also been organized for Tuesday evening at Pace Assembly of God Church.
Organizers say the rally is an effort to show support for the graduating students of Pace High School, the principal, faculty, and staff.