Consent Decree Ensures Religious Freedom for All Students

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
May 8, 2009

CONTACT:
Brandon Hensler, Director of Communications, (786) 363-2737 or media@aclufl.org

PENSACOLA, Fla. – In a consent decree approved today by a federal judge in northern Florida, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Florida won the final chapter of a lawsuit filed last year on behalf of two Pace High School students who alleged that school officials regularly promoted religion and gave prayers at school events.

“Once again, 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 of Florida filed the lawsuit, along with the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, in August 2008 charging that school officials committed 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 the school, devising how best to bring the school district in compliance with the U.S. and Florida Constitutions. Included in the order, the judge ruled that:

Its district-wide policies, practices and customs 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 reasonable 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 school officials to distribute today’s order to all current school officials in the district.

Download a PDF of the full consent decree here.

ACLU attorneys for the students include: Stevenson, Glenn Katon, Randall Marshall, and Maria Kayanan, of the ACLU of Florida; and Mach and Heather Weaver of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

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: www.aclufl.org.

                                                 # # #

2009 Press Releases

Stay informed

ACLU of Florida is part of a network of affiliates

Learn more about ACLU National