PENSACOLA, Fla. (BP)–Following a day-long trial a federal judge Sept. 17 ruled in favor of high school principal Frank Lay and athletic director Robert Freeman, two Pace (Fla.) High School employees who had faced possible jail time for a prayer said at a gathering on school property.
U.S. District Judge Margaret C. “Casey” Rodgers ruled that Lay and Freeman did not willfully violate a court order when Lay — in his 20th year as the school principal — asked Freeman to offer a prayer before the meal at a January luncheon in the school’s field house with boosters and other adults.
Their prayer came after Rodgers had issued a Jan. 9 court order forbidding employees from “promoting, advancing, aiding, facilitating, endorsing, or causing religious prayers or devotionals during school sponsored events.”
In her Sept. 17 ruling — which came following a trial involving 12 witnesses — Rodgers said the prayer appeared to be spontaneous and not a willful violation of the order. Lay and Freeman, along with witnesses who testified on their behalf, said they believed because the event was for adults — and not for students — it fell into a different category and was exempted from the types of school-sponsored activities in which prayer was expressly forbidden.
Rodgers’ temporary injunction arose from claims by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2008 that teachers and administrators in the school district “endorsed religion.”
The case drew national attention, particularly when it appeared possible that two school employees could face jail time for a prayer.
After Rodgers’ ruling, Lay and Freeman walked to the steps of the federal court building where they thanked supporters for their prayers. Nearly 500 supporters waited outside the courtroom through torrential downpours and steamy temperatures, marching, praying, reading and waving American flags.
A deacon at Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, Lay thanked his pastor, Ted Traylor, and his church family.
“Above all, I want to thank the chief counsel, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit,” he said.
Freeman added his thanks for the American judicial system, and the lawyers who represented the men, Horatio Mihet, senior litigation counsel for Orlando-based Liberty Counsel, and Barry Beroset of Pensacola.
“Let’s give God the glory,” Freeman said.
Some supporters of Lay and Freeman found it ironic that the hearing came on the 222nd anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution.
Rodgers was a nominee of President George W. Bush.
Based on a story by Joni B. Hannigan, managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness. For a more in-depth story about the trial and ruling, visit www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com.