Two school administrators from Florida's Santa Rosa County School District were cleared Thursday of criminal contempt charges over a meal prayer.
Judge M. Case Rodgers ruled that Pace High School Principal Frank Lay and Athletic Director Robert Freeman did not violate a consent decree that prohibited all district school officials from promoting, endorsing, or causing religious prayers during school-sponsored events.
The ruling was met with cheers from hundreds of supporters, including members of Congress, who arrived at the federal courthouse by the busloads.
"The tradition of offering prayer in America has become so interwoven into our nation's spiritual heritage, that to charge someone criminally for engaging in such an innocent practice would astonish the men who founded this country on religious freedom," states a letter signed by more than 61 members of Congress in support of the high school officials.
In January, Lay had asked Freeman to bless a meal during a luncheon that was attended by "private individuals not associated with the school," including boosters club members who donated money to the school for a new athletic field house, according to their lawyer Mathew Staver of Liberty Counsel.
"It is ridiculous that these men even had to think twice about blessing a meal," Staver said Thursday.
The two men explained earlier that they were not intentionally trying to violate the temporary injunction issued by the court this year. The simple blessing over a meal was done out of habit.
"It is just something you are used to doing and as they say it is hard to teach an old dog new tricks," Lay told Santa Rosa's Press Gazette earlier.
During Thursday's hearing, Freeman explained that he gave the prayer "out of reflex" when Lay asked him to.
Lay and Freeman were accused of violating the decree in a complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU had previously filed a lawsuit against the high school, including Lay, 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.
Judge Rodgers initiated criminal contempt proceedings against Lay and Freeman "for willfully violating the court's temporary injunction order."
The men were subject to fines and imprisonment if convicted.
"To criminalize the prayer conflicts with our Nation's founding and guiding principles and goes directly against our constitutionally protected rights," said Staver. "It is fitting that on National Constitution Day, our religious freedoms are preserved so that people – regardless of their employment – are free to say a meal blessing."
Last month, Santa Rosa County School District clerk Michelle Winkler was cleared of civil contempt charges over a prayer she asked her husband to say at an Employee of the Year banquet.