ACLU Backs Down from Gate City Virginia Students

Text of second ACLU letter to Gate City High's principal October 1st, 2009:

Greg Ervin, Principal
Gate City High School
178 Harry Fry Drive
Gate City, VA 24251

RE: Right of Students to Protest ACLU at Gate City High School Football Games
Dear Principal Ervin,

On September 15, at the behest of a parent of a Gate City High School student, the ACLU of Virginia wrote you to express our concerns about a sectarian prayer delivered over the public address system at the beginning of a football game. We pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that such prayers carry the impermissible imprimatur of the government, are coercive, and therefore violate the Establishment Clause.

You responded that the sectarian prayer, which was delivered by a student, was not planned and that it was not a regular occurrence at Gate City High School games. We were satisfied with that answer and conveyed it to the parent who had contacted us.

Today, I write about a related matter that has come to our attention. According to news reports, some Gate City High School students, on their own time and at their own expense, have organized a protest of the ACLU to take place at tomorrow evening's football game. Apparently more than one 1,000 t-shirts -- each displaying the school's initials, a cross and "I still pray..." on the front, and "in Jesus' name" on the back -- have been distributed to students, who will wear them to the football game.

I would like to remind you that school officials must respect the First Amendment right of students to engage in this protest. The Supreme Court has held that students, even during instructional hours, are entitled to free expression so long as the expression does not materially disrupt the educational process. It is hard to imagine that students gathering at a football game to voice their opinion of the ACLU and their desire to express their religious beliefs would disrupt something as raucous as a high school football game.

Based on the information we have at this time, you need not be concerned that part of the protest involves religious expression. The key question here, as with the prayers over the public address system, is whether the school itself is involved in the religious expression. In the case involving prayer over the public address system, the Supreme Court held that a formal prayer delivered in such a way imparts a message of school-sponsorship, even if planned and delivered by a student, and that it coerces participation in a religious exercise by those in attendance. As in many of its rulings involving the Establishment Clause, the Supreme Court recognized that the greatest danger to religious freedom emerges when the government uses its authority to promote or hinder a particular faith.

On the other hand, a student-organized, student-led protest at an extra-curricular activity that does not make use of the podium or public address system and that is neither promoted nor endorsed by the school is protected expression, whether or not religious activity is involved.

None of the above prevents the school from enforcing content-neutral rules of conduct for students attending school-sponsored events, so long as the rules are reasonable and they are applied equally to everyone, whether or not the student is a protestor.

I thank you for your attention to this matter, and I trust that the constitutional rights of all will be protected at the football game tomorrow night.

Please feel free to contact me at 804/644-8022.
Sincerely, Kent Willis
Executive Director

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