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A Christian legal group announced Saturday its intention to sue a Florida county school district in an attempt to restore the rights of faculty to pray.

The lawsuit comes in response to a federal judge’s decision Friday to uphold a consent order that the Santa Rosa School District agreed to follow after a lawsuit was filed against it in 2008 by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The decree bars school officials from “promoting, advancing, endorsing, participating in, or causing Prayers” and from “orally express[ing] personal religious beliefs to students during or in conjunction with instructional time or a School Event.”

“The court’s ruling has elevated this case to nuclear war,” said Matthew D. Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, which is filing the lawsuit.

The controversial consent order came about after the ACLU filed a complaint on behalf of two Pace High School students in August 2008 against the School Board for Santa Rosa County, accusing the district of sponsoring prayer at school events, orchestrating religious baccalaureate services, and proselytizing students during class and extra-curricular activities.

The school district, in response, attempted to settle the suit by joining with the ACLU and presenting the court with a consent order, which was then signed by U.S. District Court Judge M. Casey Rodgers without any legal argument or briefing.

The Christian Educators Association International and Liberty Counsel filed a motion to intervene but the request was rejected on Friday.

Benjamin Stevenson, staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida, said the decree was “clearly constitutional and designed to stop school officials’ admitted practice of promoting their personal religious beliefs.”

The ACLU maintains that they are seeking only to ensure that religious activities in the district are not school-sponsored and that they support “the rights of teachers and other school staff to exercise their religious beliefs, provided that they do so in their personal, rather than official, capacities and in a manner that does not affiliate their beliefs with the school.”

But Staver argues that the consent order was overly broad and essentially bans all employees from engaging in prayer or religious activities, whether before, during, or after school hours.

In December, Santa Rosa County School District clerk Michelle Winkler testified that in fear of violating the consent decree, she had to hide behind a closet door to pray with a co-worker who sought comfort after losing her 2-year-old child.

Denise Gibson, an elementary teacher for 20 years, also said in her testimony that the order forces her to tell parents she cannot respond if they talk about church or their faith. She may not even respond to an email from a parent if it contains a Scripture verse or “God bless you,” Liberty Counsel reported.

“Anyone familiar with constitutional law cannot believe the breadth of this order. It is blatantly unconstitutional,” Staver asserted.

“I am confident that when an appellate court reviews this outrageous order, it will be overturned and freedom will be vindicated,” he added.

The Santa Rosa County School District, located in northwest Florida, consists of 18 elementary schools, 7 middle schools, 6 high schools and 4 specialty schools.


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