Christian athletes sue after school apologizes for religious skit

Thursday, March 12, 1998

Two students are suing a Florida school district claiming their First Amendment rights were violated by administrators who publicly apologized for a skit put on at a school assembly.

Represented by the Liberty Counsel, an Orlando-based civil-rights organization, the two students filed a federal lawsuit this week against the Seminole County School District and administrators of Teague Middle School alleging violations of speech and religious-liberty rights.

The students, who are members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, participated in what they say was a student-sponsored assembly celebrating cultural diversity. The students performed a gymnastic routine to a song by Carmen, a singer dedicated to spreading the Gospel. The song, “American Again,” includes the refrain “the only hope for America is Jesus.”

The day after the six-minute skit, officials announced over the school's closed-circuit TV that the students' performance was inappropriate and apologized if it offended anyone. Officials promised that such an event would not recur.

Ned Julian, the school board's attorney, said that the performance contained an inappropriate religious message.

“We don't take the position that the word 'religion' or 'God' cannot be said in school,” Julian said. “But in this case the assembly, which was overseen by school officials and was part of the school day, was deemed inappropriate and beyond the acceptable boundaries for discussing religious beliefs during school.”

Liberty Counsel officials, however, claim that actions by the administration violated the students' First Amendment right to freely exercise their religion by barring them “from fulfilling their biblical mandate to promulgate the Gospel of Jesus Christ and evangelize others.”

Liberty Counsel officials also claim that school administrators violated the separation of church and state by taking a hostile position against Christian beliefs.

“First of all the Establishment clause requires government to be neutral to religion,” Nicole Arfaras Kerr, executive director of the counsel, said. “Neutrality means the government cannot promote, endorse nor discriminate against religion. For school officials to tell students that they will no longer be able to express such Christian beliefs again is not neutral.”

Julian said the school officials' apology was prompted by complaints from several parents who complained their children were not allowed to leave during the performance of the Carmen song.

“I have reviewed the text of the apologies and in my view they neither advance or denigrate religion,” he said. “The officials apologized because several Jewish parents called and complained that their children were troubled by the context of the performance and the fact they were not permitted to leave the assembly.”

The Equal Access Act of 1984 requires public high schools receiving federal assistance to allow student religious groups to hold meetings before and after school hours if other extra-curricular groups are given similar rights. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1990 said the act was constitutional but noted that student religious meetings on school grounds must truly be student-sponsored. If attendance at a religious meeting at a public school is sponsored by school officials and is part of the school day then it is likely not to be seen as student-initiated religious expression.

The Liberty Counsel argues that the assembly was sponsored and coordinated by Teague students. According to Afaras Kerr, the students were celebrating diversity and that should have included Christian beliefs also.

Julian, however, said the event was not student-sponsored.

“This was a school-sponsored event devoted to racial diversity as a capstone for Black History Month,” he said. “The thrust of the program was devoted to black culture — to help students who are not black have a better understanding of the black culture. This was not an extra-curricular activity and students were required to be there.”