A Florida school district has promised to safeguard state/church neutrality after admitting to the Freedom From Religion Foundation that it blundered in the case of a religious film.
A few months ago, Gulf Breeze High School and Gulf Breeze Middle School in Gulf Breeze, Fla., publicized “I’m Not Ashamed,” a faith-based movie that uses the 1999 Columbine shooting to plug Christianity and disparage atheism. FFRF learned that adult members of “The Dash,” an outside group boosting the film, were permitted inside the school to distribute event flyers to students during the school day, among other violations.
Public schools may not promote religious movies, including by granting adult-led religious groups like The Dash access to students during the school day to invite them to such a movie, FFRF emphasized to the school district.
“It is well settled that public schools may not advance, prefer or promote religion,” FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Santa Rosa County District Schools Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick. “When a school allows representatives of an adult-led faith-based group to recruit students for a religious event, it has unconstitutionally entangled itself with a religious message — in this case, a Christian message. This practice alienates those non-Christian students, teachers and members of the public whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being disseminated by the school.”
These school visits apparently took place without parental knowledge or consent, FFRF added. Allowing representatives of The Dash to distribute tickets to a religious movie usurps the authority of the parents, some of whom surely do not want their children approached by unknown adult religious leaders at their child’s public school lunch.
FFRF requested a written assurance that the Santa Rosa County School District would not grant outside groups access to students during the school day to promote religion.
The school district acknowledged that proper school protocol had not been followed.
“The allowance of a parent of one of the students of the club to pass out tickets during the lunch period at the middle school was not in keeping with practice and has been appropriately addressed,” Wyrosdick replied. The school district “has taken the concerns of FFRF seriously and through the process of reviewing these concerns, it has taken the opportunity to review pertinent laws, policies and procedures with the administration and staff at the sites that were immediately affected.”
The district assured FFRF that it would use the organization’s concerns to modify procedures.
“Where there was an oversight, it was addressed directly with administration and expectations for corrective action to avoid future incidents were communicated,” Wyrosdick added. “Moving forward, the Santa Rosa County School District will be using these scenarios in future professional development opportunities to train developing administrators, teachers, and adult stakeholders on campus about the guidelines in which they must operate when dealing [with] activities or events.”
FFRF thanks the school district for being responsive.
“It is established law that outside groups cannot preach inside public schools,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We’re pleased that our objection to this is resulting in the school district strengthening its rules.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national state/church watchdog representing 27,000 atheists and agnostics around the country and chapters all over, including almost 1,400 in Florida and a chapter in the state, the Central Florida Freethought Community.