Teachers say they are literally forced to pray in school closets to avoid contempt charges
Florida schoolteachers say they are being forced to hide in closets to pray after a controversial court ruling.
Under an order crafted by the ACLU, school employees in Santa Rosa School District must act in an “official capacity” whenever they are at a “school event” – including breaks, after-school events on or off campus and private events held on campus.
Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit law firm, alongside Christian Educators Association International, is seeking to overturn the court order, which has resulted in three school officials being charged with contempt.
According to the group, school officials are strictly prohibited from showing agreement with anyone “communicating with a deity,” such as “bowing the head” or “folding hands.” “School officials” must also prohibit “third-parties” from praying, Liberty Counsel said.
During testimony that ended last week, Christian employees said the order has literally driven them to hide in closets to pray to avoid contempt charges.
As WND reported, Michelle Winkler, a clerical assistant, earlier faced contempt charges after her husband read a prayer at a private banquet held at a Naval base to honor noninstructional school-district employees. The judge eventually found that Winkler’s husband’s prayer at a voluntary gathering outside of school did not violate any court order.
During her recent testimony, Winkler broke down on the witness stand as she told a story about how her coworker sought comfort from her after losing her 2-year-old child.
The two hid behind a closet door to pray, for fear they would be seen and held in contempt of the court order.
Denise Gibson, an elementary teacher for 20 years, testified that the order requires her to inform parents that she cannot respond if they mention church or their faith. She said she is prohibited from replying to e-mails from parents if they contain Bible verses or even “God bless you.” Instead, she said, the district has instructed her to open a separate e-mail to answer the parents rather than hit “reply.” The district calls for the action to eliminate any trace of religious language in school communication.
As WND reported, Liberty Counsel successfully defended Pace High School Principal Frank Lay and Athletic Director Robert Freeman against criminal contempt charges after the ACLU complained when Freeman gave a 15-second blessing for a lunch meal for 20 adults with no students present.
The men had faced penalties of up to six months in jail and $5,000 in fines each.
The situation began in August 2008 when two anonymous students sued with the help of the ACLU over longstanding practices at the school allowing prayer at some events. The school’s separate counsel had agreed to a consent decree that “essentially bans all Santa Rosa County School District employees from engaging in prayer or religious activities,” Liberty Counsel reported.
WND also reported earlier when members of the 2009 graduating class at Florida’s Pace High School expressed their objections to the ACLU restrictions on statements of religious faith at their school by rising up en masse at their ceremony and reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
Nearly 400 graduating seniors at Pace, a Santa Rosa County school, stood up at their graduation, according to Staver. Parents, family and friends joined in the recitation, and applauded the students when they were finished, Staver told WND.
“Many of the students also painted crosses on their graduation caps to make a statement of faith,” the organization reported.
“The court order crafted by the ACLU takes my breath away,” said Mathew Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel. “I am embarrassed for our country, knowing that school employees in Santa Rosa County are hiding in closets to pray out of fear they may be hauled into court by the ACLU. We intend to restore religious freedom to Santa Rosa County. We will not allow the ACLU to criminalize Christianity.”