Leaders of Palm Beach County’s public school system want to do away with religious banners on school campuses, seven months after a secular activist attempted to display a Satanic banner at Boca Raton High School.
For years, churches, synagogues and other religious groups had been able to pay to display promotional banners at the county’s more than 180 public schools.
But school district administrators pulled the plug on that program after a secular activist asked in November to post a “Satanology” banner at Boca Raton High.
Now the school district is proposing that banners sponsored by religious organizations be banned for good.
The new policy, which has to be approved by the county school board, would declare religious organizations to be “inappropriate business partners,” along with political candidates and organizations that support political causes or other “controversial subjects.”
School district administrators are scheduled to present their proposal to school board members on Wednesday, although no vote is scheduled.
The proposed ban comes after nearly two years of complaints by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin non-profit that advocates for the separation of church and state. The foundation has argued that by allowing religious groups to display paid messages on campus, the school district was illegally promoting religion.
The organization said its argument was boosted by an unrelated case in which the school district pulled banners advertising a math tutor’s services from area schools after learning that the tutor was a former porn star. In that case, the school district argued that it had the right to remove the banners because they constituted “government speech,” not “private speech.”
The federal appeals court agreed and in 2015 declared the banners “government speech.” But that means they are subject to the constitution’s requirements that government refrain from promoting religions, the foundation argued.
“They’ve backed themselves into a corner by declaring that these banners are government speech,” said Andrew Seidel, an attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation. “And because of that, they absolutely cannot promote religion, and they cannot denigrate religion. This is the logical legal outcome of their previous cases.”
Seidel applauded the school district’s proposed new policy, calling it an inevitable outcome of the 2015 court decision.
“We are seeking government neutrality when it comes to religion, and it looks like that is what this new rule does,” he said.
The foundation had been pressuring the school district since 2015, but the stakes rose in November, when Broward County secular activist Chaz Stevens asked to display a “Satanology” banner at Boca High, where churches and synagogues already had displayed banners.
After receiving his request, school district leaders ordered principals to stop accepting new applications for banners from religious groups.
Stevens, an atheist, applauded the school district’s proposal and said he expected the move. He said the point of requesting to post a Satanic banner was to prove that the school district had little tolerance for forms of religious speech that didn’t conform with established mainstream religions.
“They just basically said ‘Screw you Chaz, we’re taking our ball and going home,’” he said. “They didn’t give me equal opportunity under the law. They just didn’t want to hear what I had to say. If I was a Christian or Jewish organization, we wouldn’t be talking right now.”
In a statement Monday, the school district said that the ban “will ensure consistency in advertising on district-operated schools.”
“Any banners from religious organizations currently on district-operated schools will be phased out as those business partnership agreements come up for renewal,” the statement said.