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Prayer could land principal, A.D. in jail

PACE, Fla. (BP)–A court order banning school employees from praying publicly at any time or at any place in a Florida school district has resulted in criminal contempt charges against a high school principal and athletic director.

Principal Frank Lay and athletic director Robert Freeman of Pace High School may face jail time if a federal judge rules they violated a court order issued Jan. 9 that forbid employees from “promoting, advancing, aiding, facilitating, endorsing, or causing religious prayers or devotionals during school sponsored events.”

Charges were filed against Lay and Freeman after Lay, who is in his 20th year as the school’s principal, asked Freeman to offer a prayer before the meal at a Jan. 29 luncheon in the school’s field house honoring boosters and other adults. Lay is a member of Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola.

“I did it primarily out of habit. It’s just something we’ve always done,” Lay said. “I have been painted here as somewhat of a rebel. I don’t consider myself that, nor do I want to be. I am a Christian. I am not ashamed of my faith.”

Orlando-based Liberty Counsel is representing both men. Mathew D. Staver, the organization’s founder, told the Florida Baptist Witness that last year the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the school district claiming some teachers and administrators “endorsed” religion.

The school district, Staver said, complied with the ACLU’s recommendations and consented to the entry of an order by the court which, among other things, essentially bans employees from engaging in prayer or religious activities before, during or after school hours.

U.S. District Judge Case Rodgers initiated criminal contempt proceedings and has referred the men to the United States attorney’s office for prosecution. The case is scheduled for trial in U.S. District Court in Pensacola Sept. 17.

In protest of the new policy, many Pace High School seniors recited the Lord’s Prayer and wore crosses on their caps at their May 30 graduation ceremony. Many in the packed stands joined the students and applauded afterwards.

Meanwhile, Liberty Counsel on Aug. 21 will represent the Christian Educators Association International (CEAI) in a motion to intervene in the original case the ACLU filed against the school district, asking that the consent order approved by the court in March be modified on the grounds it violates the First Amendment rights of CEAI members and requires them to infringe on the free speech and free exercise rights of students and other third parties.

Staver said Liberty Counsel will also seek to become a co-defendant in that case with the school district, and would expect the charges against Lay and Freeman would be set aside.

“If on the other hand, we are not granted intervention, we will file suit directly against the school on behalf of the other teachers,” Staver said. “The school cannot enter into an agreement that will violate the constitutional rights of parents and teachers. They simply cannot do something that unconstitutional.”

The difference between this ruling and others the court has handed down concerning when and where students or employees may gather for religious activities or pray, is that it does not set standards, but instead addresses all employees, at all school-related functions, at all times. It does not allow for club sponsorships, parent and child relationships, or simply someone who wants to “bow their head in respect” when others are praying, Staver said.

“It’s a breathtakingly broad ruling,” Staver said. “That’s why these individuals and staff have to look over their shoulders. It’s on or off campus. It involves not only participating in any religious activity, but giving consent or approval of someone’s activity.

“It absolutely takes a street sweeper to religious expression,” Staver said.

In a July 13 e-mail to the Witness, Tim Wyrosdick, district superintendent, said he was confident in the constitutionality of the consent order. Subsequently, the district has not offered legal counsel for Lay or Freeman who continue their responsibilities, Staver said.

“The district is letting the principal and the athletic director flap in the wind. They are cutting them loose because they are intimidated because of the ACLU,” Staver speculated. “The district cannot be in collusion with the ACLU … any more than it can agree to segregation” when it comes to the constitutional rights of its employees.

Citing the need to continue to fight for the “fundamental liberties” Americans have, Staver said walking away is not the answer.

“What’s not the Christian thing to do is just to walk away whenever the Gospel is at stake — to think it’s just irrelevant. These are fundamental liberties that we have: the free exercise of religion and free speech. Those are liberties we cannot take for granted,” Staver said. “These liberties are inalienable rights that come from our God.”

Ted Traylor, pastor at Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, where Lay is a member, said the situation in the Santa Rosa County School District has been one of “fear” for many since the consent order was handed down.

“The Christian teachers I know have fear and uncertainty about what they can or cannot do,” Traylor told the Witness. “As the order stands a teacher may not bow his/her head at the lunch table and pray silently over a meal. That is contempt of court. My hope and prayer is that the order can be overturned and a more constitutional document can be formulated.”
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, online at FloridaBaptistWitness.com, where this story first appeared.

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