Florida's history with school prayer litigation proves religious speech in the public sphere would stay contentious long after a landmark Supreme Court decision out of New York. Engle v. Vitale in 1962 outlawed compulsory prayer in public schools but left a lot of details to be fought over in future cases.
Here are two significant school prayer cases from Florida:
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Johnston-Loehner v. O'Brien
– Amber Johnston-Loehner, a Christian fifth grader at Lime Elementary School in Lakeland was barred by principal Philip O'Brien from handing out religious brochures to classmates. In 1994, a federal court sided with the child.
The court found that singling out religious material for exclusion, out of concern that it might be disruptive, was a violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which states that Congress "shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
"Mere fear of possible interference is not sufficient to sustain a content-based prior restraint on student speech," the court ruled.
Adler v. Duval
– A tradition for high schoolers in Duval County was to elect a classmate to deliver a two-minute graduation speech, and school officials did not screen the remarks beforehand.
When some students sued the school district, claiming the speeches would be religious in nature, a federal court said in 2001 that even if they were, the school tradition was still constitutional. A panel of judges ruled 8-4 that the school district was not promoting religion because school administrators were not selecting the graduation speakers and were not approving or prohibiting their remarks, according to the First Amendment Center.
Sapp v. School Board of Alachua County
– In 2009, the ACLU sued to allow students to wear "Islam is of the Devil" t-shirts to school. School administrators had ordered a group of Gainesville public school kids who also belonged to a local Christian church, Dove World Outreach Center, to cover up their t-shirts.
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A federal court ruled
for the school system, and against the ACLU and the plaintiffs in 2011, finding that "school officials had a reasonable fear that the t-shirts were likely to interrupt school activities" and were "inconsistent with the schools' mission" to promote "civil speech and decorum" among students of different backgrounds.
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