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On The Front Lines

Lawsuit Filed Against Florida High School for Free Speech Violations and Staff Misconduct

Rutherford Institute Attorneys File Complaint in Florida Federal Court

-Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have filed a complaint in Palm Beach federal court on behalf of high school students Sharah and Brittni Harris. The complaint charges Boca Raton Community High School with religious discrimination for forcing Sharah Harris to remove religious words she painted on a mural and with gender harassment for abusive conduct to which Boca High's basketball coach allegedly subjected female team members.

The student council of Boca Raton High, in an effort to beautify the campus, came up with a project to permit individual students to paint four-foot construction panels in the high school building. The students were told that the messages could not be profane or inappropriate, but they were not told that religious messages could not be painted. Several members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a student club, including Sharah and Brittni Harris, painted panels with messages reflecting their religious faith. The messages included "Jesus has time for you," "God loves you," and "What part of 'Thou shall not' didn't you understand?" After some teachers and students complained about some of the messages, the principal ordered the Christian students, including Sharah, immediately to repaint the panels, changing the words "God" and "Jesus." "Jesus has time for you," for example, was changed to "He has time for you," which is not obviously religious. The principal later told the press that the messages violated a district policy governing the display of religious material in school.

Attorneys for the girls and their parents charge that the principal's actions violated their rights to free speech and equal protection under the law. Perhaps most egregiously, these events took place before Brittni and Sharah's parents had contacted the principal about another matter involving the girls' basketball coach, in an apparent double standard for what type of speech school authorities regard as "offensive." While Sharah and Brittni and other members of their Christian club were subjected to a swift response to complaints that their religious speech was "offensive," Brittni and other members of the basketball team allegedly have been subjected to repeated verbal sexual harassment and intimidation by their coach, who uses foul and obscene language--often directly in the faces of the girls. Sharah and Brittni's parents complained to the principal about this behavior, but no action was taken until after The Rutherford Institute contacted the school.

"Boca Raton High School officials are out of step with the federal courts, which have repeatedly ruled that personal religious speech like Sharah's mural is as protected as other types of speech," said Rutherford Institute President John W. Whitehead. "That the basketball coach's obscene language would be tolerated for so long illustrates the topsy-turvy values this school teaches its students."

The Rutherford Institute is an international, nonprofit civil liberties organization committed to defending constitutional and human rights.

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Nisha N. Mohammed
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Email: Nisha N. Mohammed