Florida school officials Frank Lay and Robert Freeman recently received letters informing them that they could lose their retirement benefits because of a prayer said at a luncheon.
The Pace High School principal and athletic director are accused of violating a consent decree – which prohibits all district school officials from promoting, endorsing, or causing religious prayers during school-sponsored events – and face criminal contempt charges.
Mathew Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, said on Fox News on Monday that the two administrators stand to lose, collectively, 70 years of their life investment into the school district.
When Principal Lay asked Freeman to bless a meal during a luncheon in January, "they never thought that this would be a violation of any order," Staver, who is representing the two men, said.
"They certainly never thought they would be defending themselves under a criminal contempt charge and face up to $5,000 in fines and up to six months in prison, and they never thought that they would jeopardize their collective 70 years of employment (retirement benefits)."
The notorious American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint about the prayer to U.S. District Judge Casey Rodgers. The ACLU had previously filed a lawsuit against the high school on behalf of two unnamed students who alleged that school officials regularly promoted religion and led prayers at school events. The lawsuit was settled with a consent decree, approved by both parties, early this year.
Following the complaint, however, Judge Rodgers initiated criminal contempt proceedings against Lay and Freeman "for willfully violating the court's temporary injunction order."
Their lawyer, Staver, argues that no students and only a few employees were present at the luncheon in January. The people who attended were "private individuals not associated with the school, other than they were part of the boosters club" that donated money to the school for a new athletic field house.
Lay stated in a February 4 letter to district Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick, however, that culinary class students prepared and served the meal.
Glenn Katon, director of the Religious Freedom Project for the ACLU, told CNN that it did not request the two men go to jail over the possible violation of a court order.
He said the challenge is "about the students' right to be free from teachers and school administrators thrusting upon the students their religious beliefs."
Meanwhile, the recent proceedings have teachers and staff "running with fear not knowing what they're going to do next," according to Liberty Counsel's Staver.
Staver, who believes the criminal contempt charge is "ridiculous," says the ACLU has been placing people monitors on campus to check for any religious activity.
They're "trying to literally eliminate anything that's religious," Staver said on Fox News. "They've just been uber sensitive to this kind of activity and they literally are trying to erase it not just during the school day but even after the school day on school campus and even now off campus.
"So the teachers and staff are running with fear not knowing what they're going to do next."
Liberty Counsel filed a motion to intervene to challenge the consent decree, which it believes "unconstitutionally infringes on the rights of teachers, administrators, and students."
In May, as a result of the decree, senior class president Mary Allen who was expected to speak at her graduation ceremony was removed from the lineup because she might say something Christian.