ACLU Files Complaint on Behalf of Students
To Protect Rights of Religious Freedom for All

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
August 27, 2008

CONTACT:
ACLU Communications Office, (786) 363-2737 or media@aclufl.org
Will Matthews, ACLU National, (212) 549-2582 or 2666; media@aclu.org

PENSACOLA –Santa Rosa County school officials are using their governmental positions to promote their personal religious beliefs in public schools, according to a lawsuit brought today on behalf of two students by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the national ACLU.

The complaint, filed by two Pace High School students, reveals a repeated pattern by school officials – including Santa Rosa County School Board members and Pace High School Principal H. Frank Lay – of promoting and endorsing prayers at graduation ceremonies and other school events, of sponsoring religious ceremonies, and holding official school events at churches. in Idaho the ACLU successfully brought suit in an earlier case on behalf of Evangelical Christian students who objected to attending their high school graduation in a Mormon church.

“Religion is best served when parents -- not the public schools -- are responsible for directing their children’s religious education,” said Benjamin Stevenson, staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida’s Northwest Region office. “Religious freedom is eroded when the government endorses any particular religious viewpoint.”

According to the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern district of Florida, graduation ceremonies during the past five years at Central, Jay, Milton, Navarre and Pace High Schools have included prayers by students – often members of groups like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes or the Christian World Order. The graduation ceremonies at Santa Rosa Adult School and Santa Rosa Learning Academy also have included prayers.

School administrators and teachers mix their responsibilities as public officials with their personal religious beliefs, according to the lawsuit, by planning baccalaureates, helping to decide the place of worship at which they would be held, and leading prayers with students. Additionally, school officials interjected their own religious perspectives at elementary school graduations, a middle school Christmas concert, and high school football and cheerleading banquets.

The lawsuit also documents how teachers and staff at Pace High School preach about “judgment day with the Lord” and offer Bible readings and biblical interpretations during student meetings. While such activities are constitutionally protected at private schools and in religious communities, the government should not be involved in making such decisions.

“The government should not be in the business of deciding which religions to promote,” said Daniel Mach, director of litigation for the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “Religion belongs where it prospers best: with individuals, families and religious communities.”

A copy of today’s complaint can be downloaded at: www.aclu.org/religion/schools/36566lgl20080827.html

About the ACLU of Florida
The American Civil Liberties Union (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.

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