FFRF applauds Fla. school district’s decision to halt graduations in churches

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is commending the Duval County School District in Jacksonville, Fla., for protecting student rights by no longer holding graduation ceremonies in churches.

Executive Director of Policy and Compliance for Duval County School District Brian K. McDuffie sent a May 12 email to all district school principals asking them to cease scheduling graduation ceremonies in churches because of the religious entanglement and other constitutional issues.The decision protects the rights of all district students to be free from religious coercion as they celebrate their graduation with friends, family, classmates and the broader community.

In response to the new district policy, several individuals reached out to Liberty Counsel, a Christian organization that works to advance Christianity. The organization sent a letter on May 16 to the district offering poor legal justifications for continuing to force students and their families to enter Christian houses of worship in order to participate in public school graduation ceremonies that celebrate 13 years of secular education. The letter erroneously claims that hosting public school events is permissible, and encourages the district to create partnerships with churches that blur the boundaries between schools and local churches.

FFRF praises the district’s decision to respect the diversity of religious viewpoints among graduating seniors and their families. and to protect their constitutional rights. The state/church watchdog urges the district to disregard Liberty Counsel’s transparent attempt to advance Christianity by entangling Christian churches with secular public schools.

“Christian students are free to host events celebrating their achievements in their local churches, but non-Christian students shouldn’t be forced to attend a public school event in a church, especially an event as important as graduation,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to Superintendent Diane Greene.

Public school students have the First Amendment right to be free from religious indoctrination in their public schools, including when participating in school-sponsored events. It is unconstitutional for a public high school to compel or coerce its graduating students, their parents, teachers and other members of their families or friends, to enter a house of worship in order to participate in or attend a graduation ceremony. As the email from Duffie explained, hosting public school events in churches affiliates the district with the Christian religion, specifically the views espoused by the particular churches chosen to host the events.

Each year, FFRF receives many reports from parents and students dismayed to learn they will be required to attend an event at a church in order to celebrate their graduation. They feel uncomfortable with the beliefs espoused by the church, do not want the church’s religious imagery present in their graduation photos, or have had negative experiences with religion that make them hesitant to enter a church.

FFRF is glad that the district is instead striving to create a welcoming, inclusive environment for students, including graduating seniors, especially in light of the fact that nearly half of Generation Z is nonreligious. And this is why FFRF is asking the district to disregard the letter from Liberty Counsel and instead continue to uphold the rights of students, families and the local community to celebrate graduation without the specter of district-sponsored religious coercion.

“Graduation is a celebration of students’ achievements, and 13 years of secular education — not an opportunity to promote religion,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The district made the right call by putting the students’ freedom of conscience first.”

You can read the entire FFRF letter here.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 40,000 members and several chapters across the country, including more than 2,000 members and a chapter in Florida. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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