A Santa Rosa County School District clerk was cleared of violating a federal court order that prohibits prayers at a school event.
U.S. District Judge Casey Rodgers ruled on Friday that Michelle Winkler would not be held in civil contempt over the prayer her husband offered at an Employee of the Year banquet.
Winkler had been instructed by the district to offer "a thought for the day" rather than a prayer during the annual banquet in February. She chose instead to ask her husband, who does not work for the school district, to offer a prayer at the annual banquet.
The prayer came after Judge Rodgers issued a temporary injunction in January, prohibiting all district school officials from promoting, endorsing, or causing religious prayers during school-sponsored events. The American Civil Liberties Union had filed a lawsuit last year against the school district on behalf of two unnamed students who claimed school officials violated the Constitution by promoting their religious beliefs in schools.
Liberty Counsel, which argued on Winkler's behalf, contended that the banquet was not a school-sponsored event. It was a privately funded event that took place off campus after school hours to honor noninstructional employees of the school district, the Christian law firm said.
During the trial on Friday, Winkler had some concerns about the outcome of the trial. But after a more than seven-hour hearing, Rodgers ruled that Winkler was not among the parties named in the original lawsuit by the ACLU and could not be held in contempt by the court.
"The wheels came off the ACLU's steamroller," said Mathew D. Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, in a statement Monday. "While we are pleased with the ruling, we are saddened that a wonderful woman had to spend a day in court, with the ACLU's crosshairs aimed at her back."
"Prayer is neither contemptuous nor criminal," he added. "It is outrageous that the ACLU sought civil contempt charges against an outstanding woman whose husband prayed a beautiful prayer at a privately sponsored event held off campus. The ACLU needs to take a good dose of the First Amendment and call us in the morning."
Attorneys with Liberty Counsel will return to court on Sept. 17 to defend two other school administrators who face charges of criminal contempt over a luncheon prayer.
Pace High School Principal Frank Lay had asked Athletic Director Robert Freeman to bless a meal during a luncheon that was mainly attended by boosters club members and individuals not associated with the school.
Lay, who is one of the parties in the original lawsuit, and Freeman are subject to fines, imprisonment, and a loss of retirement benefits if convicted of violating the court injunction.