ACLU PROTECTS RELIGIOUS FREEDOM THROUGH PROPOSED VOLUNTARY CLARIFICATIONS TO A 2009 AGREEMENT WHICH ENDED OFFICIAL, SPONSORED RELIGIOUS ACTIVITIES IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS
OPPONENTS AGREE TO WITHDRAW PENDING CHALLENGES TO CONSENT DECREE
PENSACOLA – The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida today announced it has reached agreement with the Santa Rosa County Superintendent of Schools on strengthening and clarifying a court-approved 2009 Consent Decree agreement that ended school sponsored religious activities by the district and its employees.
In making the voluntary clarifications, the ACLU and the District Superintendent agreed to reinforce and clarify the basic premise of the original Consent Decree – that official, government sanctioned religious activities are prohibited under the Constitution while individual religious expressions are protected by the Constitution.
“Our original agreement with the school district was clear and consistent with religious liberty provisions of the Constitution,” said Benjamin James Stevenson, attorney in the ACLU of Florida’s Northwest Regional Office in Pensacola. “To the extent there was any confusion – real or mostly invented – about what the Constitution requires, we want to be clear and have been even more clear now.”
After the original Consent Decree was approved by a federal judge in May, 2009, the Liberty Counsel, an outside ulta-conservative Christian legal organization, attempted to intervene and overturn the entire Consent Decree. A federal court rejected their challenge after a December, 2009 hearing and the Liberty Counsel appealed. The Liberty Counsel also filed a separate, similar lawsuit challenging the Consent Decree in May, 2010.
With the clarifications announced today, the Liberty Counsel will withdraw their legal challenge and the related appeal and support the new, modified Consent Decree. Neither the Liberty Counsel nor the any of the plaintiffs in their legal challenges were a party to today’s agreement on the modified Consent Decree. Nonetheless, the School District has a pending agreement to pay the Liberty Counsel $265,000 to end their litigation.
“It’s an unseemly payoff,” said Stevenson. “They came in after the fact, stirred up some controversy, raised some money on this invented issue, and will leave town likely with $265,000 in taxpayer money that would be better spent on the students in our community.”
In a letter to the district also released today, the ACLU has agreed to waive the approximately $150,000 in successfully defending the 2009 Consent Decree.
In September, 2009, the Liberty Counsel rejected an offer by the ACLU and the School District to avoid exposing taxpayers to expensive litigation by making clarifications to the original agreement.
Most of the clarifications to the original agreement were minor. Two highlights include new language that makes it clear that although district employees may not lead prayer or religious activities, or allow or direct others to do so, they may remain still and clasp their hands as a show of respect while students pray. And new language gives express permission for employees to say things such as, “God bless” or “Good heavens” to express surprise.
“Despite contrived examples of threats to religious freedom and concocted claims confusion, the original agreement and court order never blocked or interfered with personal religious expression,” Stevenson said. “It was never unclear but now it’s double-clear, you can say “God bless you” when someone sneezes.”
In fact, the proposed, clarified Consent Decree approved by the Liberty Counsel acknowledges the old, court approved Decree was clear. Page six of the new, clarified agreement announced today reads:
“As the Court has previously made clear, ‘the plain language of the consent decree simply does not address the conduct of school employees in any context other than in their official capacity.’”
Even though the federal court denied efforts by the Liberty Counsel to intervene in and challenge the 2009 Decree, Liberty Counsel sent several fundraising solicitations to supporters about the issue.
A November 25, 2009 email solicitation from the Liberty Counsel founder and Chairman was typical of the exaggeration and clear fundraising appeal:
“The ACLU is able to continue terrorizing godly [sic] men and women in Santa Rosa County because of the outrageous anti-Christian ‘consent order’ they wrote…”
“Now we must defeat the underlying order so that school officials in Santa Rosa County and school districts around the county won’t have the ACLU’s threats of criminal charges hanging over them!”
“…would you prayerfully consider making a special gift to Liberty Council right now so we can fight the ACLU’s oppressive anti-faith strategy...”
“We are glad the essence of the underlying order remains intact, and we hope these minor clarifications will allow the teachers, students, staff, and taxpayers of Santa Rosa County to move forward,” said Daniel Mach, Director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
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A copy of revised agreement with marked changes is here: http://www.aclufl.org/pdfs/2011-07-01-SantaRosaConsentClarity.pdf
A copy of the ACLU’s letter to the Santa Rosa school district waiving attorney fees is here: http://www.aclufl.org/pdfs/2011-07-01-ACLUFeeWaiver.pdf
About the ACLU of Florida
The ACLU of Florida is freedom's watchdog, working daily in the courts, legislature and throughout Florida to defend individual rights and personal freedoms guaranteed by the United States and Florida Constitutions and the Bill of Rights. For additional information, visit our web site at: www.aclufl.org