JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA — Florida’s sixth largest school district says churches are no longer acceptable venues for hosting graduations, prompting a fiery response from a national Christian legal group.
Duval County Public Schools (DCPS) notified principals on May 12 that their schools should not use “religious facilities” due to “religious entanglement” and “constitutional issues.”
“However unintentional, there will be a sense that DCPS is endorsing or promoting one religion in general and/or endorsing one particular religion over another,” DCPS attorney Brian McDuffie wrote in an email.
McDuffie cited Doe v. Elmbrook, a Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision that he said “adopted a particularly restrictive view of the Establishment Clause and the line between church and state.”
“HOSTILE TO RELIGION”
Liberty Counsel, a national Christian legal defense fund, fired back at the school district on May 16 with a demand letter that claimed the policy is “hostile to religion.”
Roger Gannam, Liberty Counsel’s Asst. Vice President of Legal Affairs, wrote: “A blanket policy allowing no DCPS events in religious facilities is unnecessarily restrictive and out of line with the binding constitutional precedent of the Supreme Court.”
Gannam claimed that the “Lemon Test” used in the case McDuffie cited is “now dead” and “all the cases that relied on Lemon are no longer valid.” He added that “the Establishment Clause must be interpreted according to its historical intent.”
Liberty Counsel’s Founder and Chairman Mat Staver hinted that DCPS could get sued if it sticks with the policy.
“This district must comply with the law and immediately stop violating the First Amendment,” Staver said in a press release. “Failure to comply with the law will be costly for the school district.”
The press release also referenced two cases from 2022 in which the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) sided with Liberty Counsel clients over their Establishment Clause challengers.
At least three schools – Chets Creek Elementary School, Hendricks Avenue Elementary School and Holiday Hill Elementary School – were forced to suddenly cancel their commencement ceremonies because they were set to be held at local churches.
“It came to our attention recently that some families’ religious beliefs would prevent them from participating in a school sponsored event held in a religious facility,” district spokesperson Tracy Pierce told The Florida Standard in a statement. “In researching the issue legally, we concluded that religious facilities should not be used for official school functions.”
Pierce added that “we greatly appreciate the support of our faith-based partners” and noted “this relates specifically to the use of religious facilities,” but did not respond when asked how the district determines what constitutes a “religious facility.”
“Houses of worship often serve as community centers, where local residents gather for fellowship and volunteerism,” Florida Department of Education spokesperson Alex Lanfranconi said in a statement. “For Duval County to deny students the opportunity to use these communal spaces in nonsensical and un-American.”
Two decades ago, Liberty Counsel and DCPS fought on the same team in an Establishment Clause challenge that reached SCOTUS. The group successfully defended a graduation prayer policy in Adler v. Duval County School Board back in 2001.