Federal Judge Approves Order Requiring Santa Rosa, FL Schools To Abide By First Amendment

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Will Matthews, ACLU National, (212) 549-2582 or 2666; media@aclu.org
Brandon Hensler, ACLU of Florida, (786) 363-2737; media@aclufl.org

Federal Judge Approves Order Requiring Santa Rosa, FL Schools To Abide By First Amendment

ACLU Lawsuit Results In Consent Decree Ensuring Religious Freedom For All Students

PENSACOLA, FL - A
federal judge today made public a consent decree requiring school
officials in Santa Rosa County, Florida to stop promoting their
personal religious beliefs in public schools.

The consent decree is the result of
a lawsuit filed last year by the American Civil Liberties Union and the
ACLU of Florida on behalf of two Pace High School students who alleged
that school officials regularly promoted religion and led prayers at
school events. Among other things, it prohibits school officials from
promoting or endorsing prayers during school functions and organizing
school-sponsored religious services.      

"The court has ensured that
decisions about religion will be left in the hands of families and
faith communities and not public school officials," said Benjamin
Stevenson, an ACLU of Florida staff attorney based in Pensacola who led
the case. "Religious freedom is best promoted when the government stays
out of religion. 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."

The ACLU lawsuit was filed in August
2008 and charged school officials with committing widespread violations
of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S.
Constitution. After months of litigation and discovery, the school
board, the superintendant and the principal filed an "Admission of
Liability" with the court, owning up to the district-wide
constitutional violations.

Following the school board's
admission, ACLU attorneys worked closely with district officials to
develop an accord that would bring the school district into compliance
with the U.S. and Florida Constitutions. The resulting consent decree,
signed by U.S. District Court Judge M.C. Rodgers, states that:

•    School officials' promotion of
their personal religious beliefs in school and at school functions
violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and the "no
aid" provision of the Florida Constitution;

•    School officials are
permanently prohibited from promoting, advancing, endorsing,
participating in or causing prayers during or in conjunction with
school events;

•    School officials are
permanently prohibited from planning, organizing, financing, promoting
or sponsoring religious services, including baccalaureate services;

•    School officials are
permanently prohibited from holding school events at a religious venue
when an alternative secular venue is reasonably suitable;

•    School officials are
permanently prohibited from promoting their personal religious beliefs
to students in class or during a school event;

•    The district shall pay damages to both plaintiffs in the amount of $1.00; and

•    School officials shall comply with the Federal Equal Access Act.

"The parties' agreement and the
court's order go a long way toward securing religious liberty in Santa
Rosa County public schools," said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation
for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "In our
constitutional system, students and parents should have the right to
practice their faith – or no faith at all – without school officials
endorsing or promoting any particular religious viewpoints."

The order also requires that school officials distribute it to all district employees.

Attorneys on the case are Mach and
Heather Weaver from the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief,
and Stevenson, Glenn Katon, Randall Marshall and Maria Kayanan of the
ACLU of Florida.

A copy of the consent decree is available online at: www.aclu.org/religion/schools/39547lgl20090508.html

Additional information about the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief is available online at: www.aclu.org/religion/index.html

Additional information about the ACLU of Florida is available online at: www.aclufl.org

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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