WASHINGTON COUNTY - The Washington County School District responded Thursday to allegations of unconstitutional practices made in a letter received August 10 from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).
The complaint, originally filed by a Vernon resident, cited "serious constitutional violations" occurring in the district, specifically at Vernon High School.
According to the letter, complaints include teachers "requiring students to transcribe from the [Bible's] Book of John," failure to address bullying and death threats targeted at non-religious students, a teacher "promoting the sale of religious t-shirts" bearing a Bible verse, a banner through which student athletes entered the playing field displaying a Bible verse, and that a Facebook page is used to "promote the religious views of the Vernon High School Fellowship of Christian Athletes,"
"We have been informed of more violations," reads the letter from FFRF staff attorney Andrew Seidel. "On multiple occasions last school year, team coaches and a team chaplain conducted prayers for the VHS football team. Further, we understand that banners advertising religious organizations, with prominent Bible quotes, are displayed at VHS football games and can be seen in the photo gallery on the school's official athletic website. Finally, we are aware that VHS's 2017 commencement ceremony included a student-led Christian prayer to God 'in Jesus' precious name.'"
The letter went on to state the school's actions were unconstitutional and cited various U.S. Supreme Court Cases.
"[Washington County School District] is obligated to keep graduation ceremonies religiously neutral," adds the letter. "The district must omit prayers and religious speeches at future graduation ceremonies. Doing so respects diversity of beliefs held by its student and families. A graduation should be a celebration for all students, not an exercise in alienating nonreligious students with a Christian message."
Bob L. Harris of Messer Caparello, PA responded on behalf of the Washington County School District, stating the firm is currently in the process of gathering information regarding the school district's practices and policies specifically as they relate to matters of coach and student-led prayers, as well as Christian banners and the other listed grievances.
"It is our intent to provide direction to the District and its schools as to measures to be taken to be sure they are in compliance with current law in the area of the establishment clause and the First Amendment," wrote Harris.
Harris went on to advise the organization of the recent passing of Florida Senate Bill 436, which was approved by Governor Rick Scott in June and took effect July 1.
Co-sponsored by Representative Brad Drake, the legislation grants students, staff, and faculty certain rights in regard to expressions of religious freedoms. The bill states a student may organize prayer groups, religious clubs, and other religious gatherings before, during and after the school day “in the same manner and to the same extent that a student is permitted to organize secular activities and groups.”
Drake states the bill's purpose is also to prohibit school boards from putting policies in place that would discriminate against those that wanted to pray in schools.
Additionally, the bill requires the Florida Department of Education to develop model policies for school districts to implement the legislation.
"We expect that model policy to be distributed soon," Harris said. "One of our tasks will be to determine what, if any, rights this law grants that are consistent with established constitutional principles and to direct our clients accordingly."
The resident who filed the complaint, whose name has not been disclosed, sent an anonymous email to Washington County News stating the complaint was not filed out of hate.
"I did not complain about these incidents at Vernon because I hate religion or God; quite the opposite," read the email. "In this country, we have the freedom to practice any faith we choose, or none at all. The problem with religion in schools is that you run the risk of a Catholic teacher confusing Baptist students, or a Lutheran teacher confusing Mormon students, or a Buddhist teacher confusing Muslim students. Religion should be taught in church and in the home, not in the school."
"I am disturbed that Vernon has received similar complaints in the past, yet has continued to flagrantly ignore the law regarding which religious practices are and are not allowed in schools. I hope this serves as a wake up call for them."
The Washington County School District states regular updates will be provided as attorneys work though the discovery process.