Religion in the Santa Rosa School System

There has been a lot of buzz in my local community of Santa Rosa County (and nationally) about the ACLU lawsuit against the school board and the charges brought against Frank Lay and Robert Freeman. There has also been a lot of misunderstanding about what the “Consent Decree and Order” consists of in regard to school officials and students leading in prayer. I have already written two posts on this matter regarding the original lawsuit and the hearing against Lay and Freeman. In this post, however, I want to actually address the Consent Decree alone. I still think the decree is good in its overall goal, but I think there are some areas that need to be challenged and refined. I have read the Consent Decree in its entirety, unlike many in the community who have voiced opinions about it. It is available for anyone to download and read by clicking HERE and HERE. Likewise, I am sure that you can obtain a copy of the decree from the Santa Rosa County School Board because they are required to distribute it to all faculty members and include it in the Student Code of Conduct manuals until January 1, 2015. I originally understood that this decree would not infringe upon the students’ right to express their religious beliefs and practices, but after reading the details of the Consent Decree I believe there are a few points that do infringe upon the students’ rights as well as those of the faculty.

The first place I believe the decree needs to be challenged is: Permanent Injunction 5. Prayer at School Events, (e) “If a School Official elects to review or may by policy review the content of a student’s or any other person’s planned address during or in conjunction with a School Event, then School Officials shall prohibit the person making the address from offering a Prayer.” I do not believe that this is in line with the U.S. Constitution that states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” I believe this is prohibiting the free exercise of religion of the students. Now, what should be clarified at this point is that students should not be selected to make such a speech based upon their religious affiliation. In other words, if the valedictorian wants to offer a prayer in their speech at graduation, then they should be allowed to do so regardless of their religious affiliation. I understand this point in the consent decree. It would be all too easy for school administrators to use students as “surrogates” to promote religion. They could select only those students they knew would offer “Christian prayer” and therefore exclude prayers from other religious groups. I would not want that to take place either, but I don’t want to prohibit a student from sharing their belief with other students.

Second point of challenge: Permanent Injunction, 5. Prayer at School Events, (h) “To the extent that School Officials permit a person during or in conjunction with School Events to give an address that a School Official can or does shape, review, or edit for content, substance, message, style, or theme, then School Officials shall instruct the person that the person’s address must exclude Prayer.” This is essentially the same order as above except that it applies to speakers other than students, so my complaint would be the same. Speakers should not have their religious liberties restricted as long as they are not chosen as a speaker based upon their religious affiliations.

Third point of challenge: Permanent Injunction, 6. Religious Services (Baccalaureate), (c) “School officials during or in conjunction with a School Event shall not require or encourage students to attend any Religious Service, including Baccalaureate. School Officials shall prohibit a school band or choir from performing at a Religious Service, including baccalaureate. Provided however, that individual students, in their personal capacity, may not be prohibited from such performance.” This I think needs to be rewritten so as not to “prohibit” students from these performances so much as to prohibit the requirement of students in the band or choir to perform at these events. For example, if the band at the local high school is asked to perform at baccalaureate, then they should be free to do so provided that members of the band are allowed not to participate without repercussion(s).

Fourth point of challenge: Permanent Injunction, 8. Promotion of Personal Religious Beliefs, (a) “School Officials shall not participate in any way in a Prayer with students during or in conjunction with instructional periods or a School Event. During or in conjunction with a School Event, School Officials shall not offer a Prayer, recite a Prayer alongside or with students, or posture in a manner that is likely to be perceived as an endorsement of the Prayer, e.g. bowing their heads, kneeling, or folding their hands.” This also seems to infringe upon the rights of the school faculty. I have a problem with them inciting religious practices, but if the valedictorian prayers during his/her speech and a school employee shares that belief, then they should not be prohibited from joining in that prayer—that’s ludicrous. Likewise, if a teacher is overseeing the Fellowship of Christian Students (FCS) and during that meeting the students lead in prayer (without input from the teacher), that teacher should be free to join in that prayer. I believe this point of the injunction goes too far.

Fifth point of challenge: Permanent Injunction, 8. Promotion of Personal Religious Beliefs, (e) “School Officials shall not orally express personal religious beliefs to students during or in conjunction with instructional time or a School Event…” I think this point needs to be further clarified. If a student asks a teacher about his/her personal religious beliefs, the teacher should be able to explain their beliefs without offering an invitation to join their faith. Likewise, this could even be relevant to the lesson in a class such as East and West Heritage or a class that covers the major religions of the world from an unbiased viewpoint. As it currently stands, a faculty member would not be allowed to answer a question about his/her personal religious beliefs even it was as simple a question as, “Are you a Christian?”

An important note is that these points of the Consent Decree can be challenged and changed without nullifying the entire decree. From Other Orders, 14 “…If any court of competent jurisdiction determines that any provision contained in this Order, or any part thereof, cannot be enforced, the parties agree that such determination shall not affect or invalidate the remainder of the Order.” This means we can challenge and refine the decree to protect the students’ rights to religious expression while also protecting them from being coerced into participating in the religious beliefs of school officials.

I also understand that the Consent Decree is “designed to ensure that the School District’s practices and policies do not violate, either currently or in the future, the First Amendment rights of students in the School District,” but I believe that it does just that in some areas and; therefore, needs to be challenged on these points in a legal proceeding. I also believe that if the faculty will use some common sense, they will know whether or not they are violating the law regarding religion in schools. I also believe that the school officials need to comply with the decree as long as it does not violate their religious beliefs; the only area I believe this might be the case is being forbidden to bow their heads, etc. when a student is leading in prayer. I think school officials have every right to express their faith in this was as long as the student initiated the prayer without any coercion.

I have already asked about the Consent Decree in another post, but after hearing all the facts and being able to read it for your self do you think the Consent Decree should be thrown out all together or challenged on some points? And if so why and/or what points
What'd you think? 

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