Fla. School District Agrees to Grant Christian Clubs Equal Treatment

Public school officials who had barred Christian clubs from meeting at a high school in Florida have reversed their decision, noting that their actions were unnecessary and unconstitutional, according to the legal group behind the latest move.

Officials at Santa Rosa County School District in Jay, Fla., had barred members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Christian World Order from accessing benefits and privileges available to other student groups at Jay High School and also told teachers that they could not participate in private baccalaureate services though the local ministerial association that sponsored the services rented school property for the event in accordance with district policy.

"Christian student groups shouldn't be discriminated against for their beliefs," said David Cortman, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund. "Further, it is unconstitutional to prohibit school district employees from attending a private religious service on their own time and in their individual capacities."

According to ADF, Santa Rosa officials, when deciding to shut down the club, had relied on a consent order that they agreed to follow after a lawsuit was filed against the school district last year by the American Civil Liberties Union.

In August 2008, a complaint had been filed 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.

Nearly half a year later, in January 2009, a U.S. district court ordered school officials to discontinue policies and practices that promote religion throughout district schools, resulting in broad restrictions on religious-based activities.

"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, after January's ruling. "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."

Since January, the district has been working to abide by the Consent Order but, as ADF attorneys pointed out, it went too far when it denied Christian groups the same rights and benefits given to other student clubs because of the religious nature of their speech.

"[T]reating FCA and CWO equally with other student clubs in no way violates this Order," ADF attorneys wrote in a May 14 letter to the officials.

"And if it did, the Order itself would be unconstitutional," they added.

After receiving the letter, district officials re-granted FCA access to benefits and privileges available to other student groups and gave permission to teachers at the school to participate in private baccalaureate services.

"The district did the right thing by reversing its decision and deciding to respect the rights of students and employees," stated Cortman.

Launched in 1994, ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith. It stands to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.

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