One Religion, For Some

As you know, the ACLU is no stranger to controversy. It is often the most contentious battles, the ones that seemingly divide us in the moment, which will unite us under our constitutional values over time.

And, few matters trigger more anger than our efforts to protect religious freedom for all by keeping government out of the business of promoting religion -- which usually means promoting the religious views of the government officials.

Florida is a religiously diverse state with many different faiths represented in our communities and the ACLU celebrates that diversity. But when government officials choose to use their position to advance one religion over another, those people whose faith is not the one being promoted (or those who have no religious affiliation) get left behind, ostracized and often made to feel like second class citizens in their own community.

America is one country of many faiths, not one, and we must all be tolerant of that and respectful of everyone's rights.

In Northwest Florida, officials at Pace High School made it a practice over many years to promote one type of religious faith in the public schools, which prompted the ACLU to come to the aid of two students (and their families) by filing a lawsuit nearly a year ago. The ACLU lawsuit against the Santa Rosa County School District aimed to bring the district in line with core constitutional values that prevent government officials from choosing to promote one faith over another, thus securing everyone's religious freedom.

The lawsuit succeeded, but unfortunately, a regrettable amount of misinformation has been spread by the media and by the public, saturating the discussion about school-sponsored prayer and religious expression at Pace High School -- and about the protection of religious freedom that our constitution guarantees for all of us. This misinformation has fueled anti-ACLU sentiment by people claiming that the ACLU is attacking religion when, in fact, we are working hard to protect everyone's right to worship as s/he wishes, or not, if they so choose, by insisting the school officials will no longer harness the power of the government and their official positions to promote one religion over another.

Religious freedom is thriving in America because of fidelity to the constitutional mandate that government (which includes the public schools) remain neutral in matters of religion.

In the public schools, students have the right to bring their Bibles to school and read them during free time; students can hand out religious literature inviting their friends to religious activities or containing any other religious message; students can pray before meals in the cafeteria; and students can pray -- as they have done for generations -- before math tests.

But when government interference in religion manifests itself through school officials suppressing student religious expression or using their official position to choose which religion's doctrine will be promoted -- the ACLU will vociferously oppose both, whether it was a public school policy or the misguided action by a school official.

In America religious faith does not depend upon -- nor does it need -- government sponsorship. Religious faith is strong enough to flourish without government endorsement by public school officials. A multitude of faiths, not just one, flourish in America because of the government's neutrality, and that makes us a stronger nation.

At last week's graduation commencement ceremonies at Pace High School, as a response to the School District's acknowledgement of unconstitutional practices in the federal court case we filed on behalf of the students and the district's agreement to cease promoting a variety of religious practices, some students commandeered the graduation ceremony to recite The Lord's Prayer, making other students and their families a captive audience for their religious views. Unfortunately, they did not appreciate the divisive effect of their actions on those students, family members, and others in attendance who do not share their religious viewpoint.

A few days earlier, many students and families had attended a non-school-sponsored baccalaureate ceremony where prayers were not only appropriate, but constitutionally protected. But offering that same prayer at a public school graduation ceremony, the purpose of which is to honor the academic achievements of students, is misplaced. Graduation is an important milestone regardless of your faith.

Instead of promoting a common celebration of the seniors' achievements, their outburst sent a message of division of beliefs to the religious minority -- that they were somehow less welcome or part of the class's achievements.

Thanks to the support of our members we are able to continue to work toward bringing the practices and policies of Pace High School, the Santa Rosa School District, and public schools all across our state into line with the constitution and laws of the United States.

Thank you all for your continued support.


Howard Simon, Executive Director
American Civil Liberties Union of Florida