April 29, 2010

Brandon Hensler, Director of Communications, (786) 363-2737 or
Benjamin Stevenson, ACLU Staff Attorney,  

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida today condemned the Florida Senate’s passage of HB 31 (27-9), a bill that was passed in response to a meritorious lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) challenging a pattern of unconstitutional religious promotion in Santa Rosa public schools.

“Deceiving fellow law-makers in order pass this agenda-driven bill is reprehensible,” said Benjamin Stevenson, ACLU of Florida Staff Attorney. The ACLU vigorously opposed the bill throughout the session. “The Santa Rosa consent decree brought the school district in line with the Constitution after decades of an admitted practice of indoctrinating students. Yet, lawmakers have resorted to misrepresenting both the desperate need for corrective action in this school district and what the consent decree actually does.

“Had lawmakers known how Santa Rosa School District personnel pushed their own religious beliefs in classes and at school events, they would not have passed a bill that trades a parent’s choice of what religious beliefs to instill in their children during school hours for that of teachers under the guise of protecting their ‘free speech’ rights. Instead, camouflaging their true intentions, lawmakers have set Florida on the track of converting our public schools into Sunday Schools, opening Florida’s public schools to vast liability by requiring school boards to ignore the advice of their own attorneys.”

The floor debate was riddled with deceptions and falsehoods about the consent decree by which the Santa Rosa School Board settled its lawsuit with students and their parents who were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which led to the legislation that was adopted by the Senate today.

Contrary to what several Senators, particularly Senator Stephan R. Wise who waved a copy of what he claimed was the consent decree approved by the United States District Court, said in debate: 

Teachers and students are still permitted to wear crosses, angel pins, or any other religious jewelry; 
Students can still pray before tests and at lunch; and 
Parents are still permitted to pray over a child injured in a football game.

All of these activities are permitted under the consent decree, which brings the school district in line with the Constitution by prohibiting the religious indoctrination of students by their teachers, administrators and school staff. The free expression of a student’s personal religious beliefs continues to be protected in Santa Rosa County and throughout Florida under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

“If this Bill is supposed to stop other school districts from admitting liability, ending costly litigation, and reining in unconstitutional practices – as Santa Rosa did – it is wildly ill-conceived,” Stevenson added. “Had this bill been law previously, it would not have prevented the consent decree because the decree does not violate anyone’s constitutional rights. The court entered the consent decree after the school district and high school principal Frank Lay admitted their unconstitutional actions and confirmed the decree was constitutional.”

For an in-depth overview of the MYTHS AND FACTS of the Santa Rosa consent decree, click here. (PDF)

About the ACLU of Florida
The ACLU of Florida is freedom's watchdog, working daily in the courts, legislatures and communities to defend individual rights and personal freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. For additional information, visit our web site at:

                                                 # # #

2010 Press Releases