Jacksonville public college suffers backlash after encouraging its students to bring Bibles to class.
On Tuesday evening, the LaVilla School of the Arts – part of the Duval County Public School family – announced that Bring Your Bible to School Day would take place on Thursday.
The event, which specifically supports Christianity, bills itself as a “national movement led by students … to celebrate our religious freedoms”. The event is hosted by Focus on the Family, a Christian ministry that promotes conservative political and religious principles.
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In the now-deleted school’s Facebook post promoting the event, parents and community members were quick to respond in the comments section, asking why the event was only promoting a religion and criticizing the principle of ” Incorporate religion on public school campuses.
Emily Carpenter, a local Jewish mother, said the language of the event – specifically aimed at Christians – made her uncomfortable. âIt’s not advertised as ‘bring your own book.’ The link specifically says it’s for Christians who believe in Jesus,â she said. “It is not inclusive and it is not the spirit of LaVilla.”
Other parents said the event was promoted over morning school announcements for days.
Reverend Rebekah McLeod Hutto and her husband, BJ Hutto, are both pastors in local churches, respectively Presbyterian Christian and Hendricks Avenue Baptist. Their daughter attends sixth grade at LaVilla. Rebekah said she found the promotion of the event disturbing, adding that the morning announcements made her daughter uncomfortable.
âAs a parent and a minister too, I am uncomfortable with any evangelistic tool promoted in a public school,â she told The Times-Union. “It is certainly not appropriate in a public school environment.”
She added: âI think an event like this hurts Jews, Muslims and Hindus, as well as children of other faiths. They should not feel constrained by Christians in their school. religious diversity in Jacksonville. I’m disappointed that LaVilla is promoting an event like this in the public school atmosphere. “
Her husband, a senior minister, agrees.
âAs a pastor, I think if a kid wants to bring their Bible to school to read, then that’s great. If a group of students wants to get together to form a Bible study at, say, lunch. , so I think that’s great too, âhe said. “However, in a public school, when the administration gets involved and begins to encourage the participation of the whole school in an explicitly Christian activity, that is when it becomes problematic.”
After a bad reaction, LaVilla removed the post from Facebook
After dozens of mostly angry comments in response to the event, the school deleted the Facebook post in less than an hour. The school’s parent-teacher-student association Facebook page also posted – and deleted – an article about the biblical event.
In Florida, public schools have worked for years to maintain the separation between schools and religion in order to avoid obscurity and a potential violation of the US Constitution’s mandate for religious neutrality in a public education setting.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, federal courts have indicated that officially sponsored prayer and proselytizing is “not acceptable in the school environment.”
Yet the principle of religious freedom in public schools protects students’ voluntary ability to pray and express religious views as long as they do not cause disruption.
The state Department of Education’s Florida School Staff and Student Religious Freedoms Act states that student-led religious activities may take place on school grounds.
But promotional posts on the school’s Facebook page about Bring Your Bible to School Day can potentially exceed those limits, according to the ACLU. Separately, the school promoted a student-run âPray at the Poleâ event on its Facebook page.
Jacksonville attorney Jimmy Midyette, who also works for Equality Florida, called the school’s Facebook posts “inappropriate promotion of Christianity.”
On Wednesday afternoon, the school republished its article on the Bring Your Bible to School day, this time with a disclaimer that it was a “Friday club ad.” The school had not yet made a point of distinguishing between administrative messages and those of the club, as shown by its presence on social networks. LaVilla’s Friday Club is a student-led faith group that has been around for at least 2019, social media posts show.
âPosting for student-run events and clubs is perfectly fine,â school principal Lianna Knight said in a Facebook post. “As an art school, we celebrate student expression. However, I should have clarified that the position was the club position and not directly our school.”
Knight added that the school’s Facebook page will be used to inform the community of club events and activities, but will tag future club announcements.
In a statement to The Times-Union, a spokesperson for Duval Schools said the original post should have made it clearer that the post was intended to promote a student club event.
âI apologize for the lack of clarity in the original post,â Knight said.
Yet community members backed down.
“No club is referenced by the chart and the website,” Midyette said in response to the updated message. “No details are given for a club event.”
A spokeswoman for the Florida ACLU said the school’s Facebook posts raised “constitutional concerns.”
“Students can still bring their Bibles, Korans and other religious texts to school if they wish,” a statement sent to The Times-Union said. “But public school officials can neither encourage nor discourage it. The First Amendment prohibits school personnel from promoting religious beliefs and activities.”