Lawsuit settled between Florida school officials, students

Tuesday, January 12, 1999

A federal lawsuit brought by a couple of Christian students in Florida alleging that their religious-liberty rights had been violated by school officials has been settled.

Early last year, several Seminole County students, members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, performed a short skit during what they described as a student-sponsored celebration of cultural diversity at Teague Middle School. The students performed a gymnastic routine to a song by Carmen, a popular evangelistic Christian singer. The song, “American Again,” contains the refrain, “the only hope for America is Jesus.”

After the performance, Teague officials received complaints from several parents who said their children were not permitted to leave during the performance. Teague officials then announced over the school's closed-circuit TV that the Christian students' use of religious music in the skit was inappropriate and apologized to those offended. The officials also vowed that such a performance would not recur on school grounds.

In March, the students, represented by the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit religious-freedom group, sued the school district in federal court, arguing that actions by the Teague officials subverted the First Amendment.

The students argued in their lawsuit that after the school officials' comments they became “intimidated and afraid to share their faith on campus” and that their free exercise of religion rights had been impinged by school officials. According to the students, the school's actions had barred them from “fulfilling their Biblical mandate to promulgate the Gospel of Jesus Christ and evangelize others.”

The settlement late last week involved an apology to the Christian students by the Seminole County School Board. Its letters to the students apologizing for the comments made after their skit also included new guidelines for student religious expression in the public schools.

Nicole Arfaras Kerr, the Liberty Counsel's executive director, said she was pleased with the outcome.

“The purpose of the lawsuit was to ensure that Christian students are treated the same as all other students,” Kerr said. “The students were singled out and humiliated because of their religious beliefs. We felt it was important for school officials to resolve this situation.”

Ned Julian, an attorney for the school district, would not answer questions regarding the settlement. Last March, however, Julian said that the assembly at Teague was school-sponsored and part of the school day and therefore the students' skit was properly “deemed inappropriate and beyond the acceptable boundaries for discussing religious beliefs during school.”

In 1995, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley issued, at the behest of President Clinton, guidelines on student religious expression in the public schools.

“These guidelines continue to reflect two basic and equally important obligations imposed on public school officials by the First Amendment,” Riley said last year. “First, schools may not forbid students acting on their own from expressing their personal religious views or beliefs solely because they are of a religious nature. At the same time, schools may not endorse religious activity or doctrine, nor may they coerce participation in religious activity.”

One of the guidelines requires that school officials remain neutral toward student religious activity. “Teachers and administrators are also prohibited from discouraging activity because of its religious content, and from soliciting or encouraging antireligious activity.” The guidelines were endorsed by a wide array of religious-liberty academics and organizations.

The guidelines, however, also state that students' right to engage in voluntary prayer or religious expression “does not include the right to have a captive audience listen, or to compel other students to participate.”

The Seminole County school district's four-page policy, “Equal Access and Guidance on Religious Expression in the Schools,” follows the guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Education.

Rob Boston, assistant communications director for the Washington-based nonprofit Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said he was not surprised the Liberty Counsel was able to persuade Teague officials to apologize for their actions.

“I'm sure the officials would rather apologize to the students then expend finances and time to litigate the case,” Boston said. “An apology from school officials, however, does not amount to a federal decision. The Teague school officials were not under an obligation to allow the students to express their religious beliefs using school equipment during a school event. There remains a difference between private student expression of religious beliefs that is constitutionally permissible and proselytizing to a captive audience which is not.”