A California elementary school principal given disciplinary action for appearing in a promotional for a teachers prayer breakfast is suing, claiming he did “absolutely nothing wrong,” lawyers said.
Craig Richter, principal of FootHill School and a Christian, appeared in a short video promoting the Santa Barbara Community Prayer Breakfast, which was organized to honor educators. A member of his school district, Goleta Union, viewed the video on Youtube and the district later deemed that Richter had violated the separation of church and state, threatened to end his contract and placed him on a disciplinary performance plan.
“The district’s contention that he was somehow violating the Constitution is not only unfounded, but absurd, as the video itself suggests,” said Alliance Defense Fund Senior Counsel Joseph Infranco.
In the 30-second video, Richter spoke mostly about the teaching profession. He thanked breakfast attendees saying, “For educators to be acknowledged and prayed for is both an encouragement and a great honor. Your support of the community prayer breakfast is appreciated.”
The video, which was to be used to obtain support of the event by showing it to local business owners, did not show him making a profession of faith. ADF filed a lawsuit on behalf of Richter against the district on Tuesday.
“Personally endorsing a prayer event that invites people of all faiths to honor teachers should not be twisted into a constitutional violation,” said William Rehwald, who is representing Richter.
Rehwald contended that Richter’s advertising the prayer breakfast was done as a private citizen speaking on an issue of public concern and the district violated his constitutional right to freedom to speech.
Neither Richter nor his staff attended the prayer breakfast because the district had chosen not to participate. The district announced it would not participate because of traffic safety concerns and the possibility that teachers would not be able to return to school on time. Foothill School staff were not told that the district didn't want to get involved because the event allegedly promoted religion or crossed the line of separation of church and state.
Notably, the event was attended by people of various religious faiths and included prayers from a variety of different faiths.
Prayer breakfasts are not uncommon in other sectors of government. Prayer circles in U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have held annual prayer breakfasts. Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota also holds a regular national prayer breakfast.
Mayor Carolyn Cavecche of California’s Orange County is endorsing a Mayor’s prayer breakfast. Cavecche is co-hosting the breakfast with the Christian Business Men Committee of Orange County, a chapter of the group which co-hosted the Santa Barbara prayer brunch in May.
John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institution, said several believers like Richter are filing lawsuits because, now more than ever, Christianity is being barred from taking a public platform. He points to cases like that of New Jersey's South Orange-Maplewood school district which he says are banning Christmas trees, music and even the name of the holiday in public spaces.
“What we used to know as evangelism as we know it is curtailed,” he said.
The superintendent’s office of Goleta Union School District refused to comment on the lawsuit saying, “We really can’t comment until we are served.”