Religious “Superstars” Shouldn’t Proselytize at Public School

After a speaker with a long history of religious proselytizing preached Christian doctrine to middle school students in the South Bay, the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties demanded that the Sweetwater Union High School District take immediate steps to comply with the state and federal constitutions by disclaiming any official endorsement of the speaker’s religious views and ensure that no similar violations happen again.

During a mandatory assembly at Southwest Middle School,  Rich Garza, a former NFL lineman and now a motivational Christian speaker, declared to the students, “You will always make the right choices because you have been saved by the Lord Jesus, our savior, who died on the cross for our sins.”

“This kind of proselytizing has no place in our public schools. The simplest of Google searches would have warned school authorities Mr. Garza was likely to evangelize their students,” said David Loy, legal director of the San Diego ACLU.  “One of the first entries describes him as one of ‘Jesus Christ’s Superstars’ and all refer to his passion for Christianity.  Mr. Garza is free to believe and speak as he wishes, but public schools have no business forcing religion on a captive audience.”

The state and federal constitutions clearly prohibit public schools from compelling students to listen to religious proselytizing.  The California Constitution is particularly strict on this issue, saying that no “school district…shall ever…grant anything to or in aid of any religious sect, church, creed, or sectarian purpose” and no “sectarian or denominational doctrine” may “be taught, or instruction thereon be permitted, directly or indirectly, in any of the common schools of this State.”

“I have confidence that Sweetwater school district will make this right,” said Loy.  “We are asking the district to publicly state, especially to all the students who attended the assembly, that Mr. Garza’s religious views are not sponsored, promoted or endorsed by the district, and that Sweetwater is committed to complying with constitutional principles of religious neutrality.”  The letter also requests that the district refrain from inviting Garza or anyone affiliated with his organization to speak at any mandatory student assembly or other district event, and that staff research any speakers they plan to invite to speak to students in the future.

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