October 4, 2013

Letter to School Says Religious Assemblies Are Unconstitutional

October 4, 2013

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: 212-549-2666, media@aclu.org

BIDDEFORD - The ACLU of Maine today sent a letter to school administrators in Biddeford warning them that proselytizing in public schools is unconstitutional. The ACLU is investigating claims that students at Biddeford High School and Biddeford Middle School were subjected to overtly religious presentations at school last week, after a concerned parent called the ACLU to report that students were brought to an assembly at which representatives of Life Choices Presents proselytized students based on their own Christian values.

"While students have an basic right to pray voluntarily and express themselves religiously at school, the Constitution prohibits school-sponsored religion," said Zachary Heiden, Legal Director of the ACLU of Maine. "Maine's public schools should be focused on providing students with a quality education, not religious coercion."

The assembly was led by Pastor Debbie Phillips who, along with her husband Pastor John Phillips, founded the Life Choices Ministry in 1999. Both Debbie and John Phillips were ordained as ministers by the "Passion and Fire Worship Center" in 2004. Their ministry's mission has been described as " bringing the message of abstinence, salvation and the ministry of life " to students across the country.

Life Choices presentations include video footage of dead high school students taken from the Columbine High School shooting, as well as graphic accounts of the murder of Rachel Scott, the niece of the presenters and one of the victims at Columbine. They also include the promotion of abstinence and judgmental statements about clothing choices, among other topics. They include multiple references to "Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior," "God," and "being killed for Christ."

"It is the right of families, not schools, to raise their children with certain religious beliefs and values - or none at all," said Heiden. "This sort of proselytizing has no place in Maine's public schools, and we are hopeful other schools will keep that in mind when planning presentations."

The ACLU's letter asks the Biddeford schools to issue an apology to students and faculty and to commit to not inviting Life Choices or any similar entities to minister to students again.

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