Prayer, Saying 'God Bless' Gets a Reprieve in Florida

A three-year legal battle over whether prayer and customary religious blessings should be allowed at Florida district school functions ended Tuesday when the school board unanimously voted to approve an agreement between the district, the ACLU and Liberty Counsel.

Teachers and students can pray and say “God bless” once again in the Santa Rosa School District without fear of reprisal, say lawyers with Liberty Counsel. The agreement clarifies a controversial consent decree that barred teacher-led prayer and religious activities within the district.

The consent decree that led to criminal indictments against school employees will now be gutted and revised, states Liberty Counsel. The federal lawsuit was filed by Liberty Counsel against the school district in early 2010.

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“This agreement allows us to begin the healing process and get back to our core mission of being educators,” said Santa Rosa School’s Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick, reported by Gannett. “We want to bring the district together again. [This] has been a huge distraction for us.”

Although the ACLU says their settlement agreement was for “clarification” purposes, Liberty Counsel founder Mathew Staver told The Christian Post that the school district agreed to totally drop the ACLU-inspired consent decree. An ACLU press release after the settlement implied the decision was a positive step for their argument.

“It’s a lie. It’s a lie they perpetuated from the beginning,” Staver said. “Had the decree been simply for clarification purposes we would not have litigated. We were ready to go to trial and they realized that their position had no chance.”

The ACLU did not respond to a Christian Post request to talk to its lawyer in the case.

"The amended consent decree will restore dozens of constitutional religious freedoms that were previously denied. In addition, Liberty Counsel and Christian Educators Association International will be awarded $265,000 in attorneys' fees and costs from an insurance provider, not the taxpayers, to compensate them for the litigation caused by the ACLU and the district," Liberty Counsel reported.

The controversial consent order came about after the ACLU filed a complaint on behalf of two Pace High School students in August 2008 against the School Board for Santa Rosa County, accusing the district of sponsoring prayer at school events, orchestrating religious baccalaureate services, and proselytizing students during class and extra-curricular activities.

The school district, in response, attempted to settle the suit by joining with the ACLU and presenting the court with a consent order, which was then signed by U.S. District Court Judge M. Casey Rodgers without any legal argument or briefing.

Two years ago, Santa Rosa County School District clerk Michelle Winkler testified that in fear of violating the consent decree, she had to hide behind a closet door to pray with a co-worker who sought comfort after losing her 2-year-old child.

Denise Gibson, an elementary teacher for 20 years, also said in her testimony that the order had forced her to tell parents she cannot respond if they talk about church or their faith. Liberty Counsel previously stated that Gibson may not even respond to an email from a parent if it contains a Scripture verse or "God bless you."

In 2009, former Pace High School Principal Frank Lay, now retired, and Athletic Director Robert Freeman were tried for contempt after the ACLU demanded that they be punished. Freeman had been accused of offering a blessing for a lunch for some 20 adult booster club members.

Staver said that the ACLU’s actions in the Florida school district were part of a plan to introduce the consent decree to other parts of the nation.

“At first, they were originally successful in their attempt to criminalize Christian speech within schools. The ACLU wanted the Santa Rosa School District as a template for the rest of the U.S.,” Staver said. “On the eve of the trial, they knew they wouldn’t end up winning.”

Liberty Counsel plans to host a victory rally at Pace Assembly Ministries on Wednesday.

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