High School Officials Face Criminal Charges Over Prayer

Two Pace High School administrators are facing criminal contempt charges over a prayer offered at a luncheon.

Principal Frank Lay and Athletic Director Robert Freeman are subject to fines and imprisonment if convicted of violating a court injunction.

Earlier this year, Florida's Santa Rosa County School District consented to an order that prohibits all district school officials from promoting, endorsing, or causing religious prayers during school-sponsored events. The consent decree was prompted by a lawsuit filed last year by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of two unnamed students.

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The students claimed school officials violated the Constitution by promoting their religious beliefs in schools.

A temporary injunction was issued in January by U.S. District Judge Casey Rodgers.

Later that same month, Principal Lay asked Freeman to "bless the food" at a luncheon at Pace High that involved former booster club members and other adults who helped in getting a new field house.

Lay, who attends Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, told The Pensacola News Journal, "My faith is who I am. I am a Christian. I am a believer. I am not ashamed of the faith."

But the 60-year-old principal said he was not intentionally trying to violate the consent decree, according to Santa Rosa's Press Gazette. "It is just something you are used to doing and as they say it is hard to teach an old dog new tricks."

Last month, Judge Rodgers initiated criminal contempt proceedings against Lay and Freeman "for willfully violating the court's temporary injunction order" after the ACLU filed a complaint noting the lunchtime prayer.

Many residents in the county are backing the administrators with "Pray for our schools" signs and fundraisers to help pay legal expenses.

"A blessing over a meal to me is not evangelism or proselytizing," Dana O'Keefe, mother of two Pace High graduates, told the local News Journal. "It's just thanking a higher power for a meal."

Liberty Counsel filed a motion to intervene on behalf of Christian Educators Association International to challenge what it believes is an "overreaching" consent order. "The order unconstitutionally infringes on the rights of teachers, administrators, and students," the non-profit litigation organization argues.

"It is a sad day in America when school officials are criminally prosecuted for a prayer over a meal," said Mathew D. Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, in a statement Monday. "It is outrageous and an offense to the First Amendment to punish a school official for a simple prayer."

The trial date for Lay and Freeman is scheduled for Sept. 17.

Michelle Winkler, a district clerk, was also accused of violating the consent order after she asked her husband, who does not work for the school district, to offer a prayer at the Employee of the Year banquet in February. She is scheduled to appear before Rodgers on Aug. 21 on a civil contempt charge.

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