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Palm Coast Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019 2 days ago

Freedom From Religion Foundation: Flagler Schools involvement in church event violates Establishment Clause

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The school district has said its involvement in the Football Sunday event is legal because participation is voluntary. The nonprofit says voluntary events can still violate the constitution when schools are involved.
by: Jonathan Simmons News Editor

A nonprofit organization has alleged that Flagler Schools' participation in the annual Football Sunday event at the United Methodist Church breaches constitutional protections against government establishment of religion, but the school district is countering that its involvement is legal because participation is voluntary for students and staff.

“It is illegal for school administrators and coaches to organize or participate in religious activities with their students, including team visits to a church for a religious sermon." 

 

— Chris Line, FFRF staff attorney

It's the second time this year that the district has been the subject of public controversy over church-state separation issues: In August, School Board Chairwoman Janet McDonald invited a pastor to offer an invocation at the beginning of a school board meeting, although board meeting hadn't included invocations in recent memory. She said she was hoping to recognize the good that religious organizations do by supporting students. The board considered continuing the practice, but decided against it.

A staff attorney from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national nonprofit organization with a branch in Central Florida, sent the school district a letter Nov. 19 stating that the Football Sunday event violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause and should not be held in the future.

"We do agree with the FFRF, that this should be discontinued if the Flagler Schools students and employees were forced to attend or if it was organized by the District or the schools involved. That is simply not the case here."

 

— Flagler Schools news release

The event, held since 2012 at the beginning of each school year, includes a worship service. It was attended this year by the football teams, cheerleadering squads and bands from Matanzas High School and Flagler Palm Coast High School, as well as school district staff members including Superintendent Jim Tager.

In the letter, FFRF staff attorney Christopher Line noted that FPC football coach Travis Roland had been quoted in a Daytona Beach News-Journal story as saying that, although he can't preach religion in school, the event was an opportunity to get students to come to the church to "hear the word."

“It is illegal for school administrators and coaches to organize or participate in religious activities with their students, including team visits to a church for a religious sermon," FFRF staff attorney Chris Line wrote in the letter. “School officials may not use their unique position as public school employees to give religious leaders unique access to students. We request written assurances that the District will take appropriate corrective action to remedy this serious constitutional violation.”

A news release issued by the school district Dec. 3 states that the district "is grateful to all community organizations which seek to support the efforts of our students and teachers both in and out of our classrooms. This includes the various faith-based groups found across Flagler County."

The FFRF complaint paints "a less-than-complete picture," the district news release states, because "no one from Flagler Schools, from administrators to students, is required or forced to attend." Rather, the teams, cheerleading squads and bands are "invited." The schools do not organize the transportation, and no one is pressured to attend or criticized for not participating, according to the news release.

"It should also be noted that Palm Coast United Methodist Church is one of the largest Protestant congregations in Flagler County and as such, many of our administrators, teachers, and students regularly attend this church," the news release states. "We do agree with the FFRF, that this should be discontinued if the Flagler Schools students and employees were forced to attend or if it was organized by the District or the schools involved. That is simply not the case here. Flagler Schools respects the rights of everyone to worship as they see fit and to NOT worship if that is their choice."

The FFRF letter, however, cites case law at length to argue that school-supported events that are voluntary can still violate the Establishment Clause. 

"As the Supreme Court said in Engel, 'Neither the fact that the prayer may be denominationally neutral nor the fact that its observance on the part of students is voluntary can serve to free it from the limitations of the Establishment Clause,'" Line wrote in the letter, citing the Supreme Court's decision in the 1962 case of Engel v. Vitale.

Rather, Line continued, citing the Supreme Court's decision in the case if Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, "Such '[s]chool sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents 'that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community.''"

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that the school district would not be canceling the Football Sunday event in response to the FFRF complaint. That wording has been deleted: The district has stated it was not the organizer of the event and, therefore, could not "cancel" it.
 

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