Teachers say they are literally forced to pray in school closets to avoid contempt charges
A federal judge handling a case brought by the ACLU against a school district that has forced teachers to hide in closets if they want to pray now is demanding documentation about the status of the plaintiffs, whose identifies have been kept secret.
That’s because the case never was certified as class action, which means unless those for whom the case was brought remain in peril over the school’s actions, there are valid questions about “this court’s continued enforcement jurisdiction over the consent decree,” the judge wrote.
WND has reported on the case, which has included an order crafted by the ACLU requiring employees in the Santa Rosa School District to 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 Florida 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 Liberty Counsel, 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.
Now, according to Liberty Counsel, the “anonymous plaintiffs” probably have “long since graduated.”
“But the plaintiffs’ permanent loss of legal standing hasn’t stopped the ACLU and the school district from continuing to defend the consent decree that has become irreversibly moot,” LC said in an announcement today.
“Having failed in its attempts to fine and jail school officials for praying, the ACLU, aided by the school district, has been opposing the efforts of Christian Educators Association International, represented by Liberty Counsel, to have the consent decree declared unconstitutional,” Liberty Counsel said.
The only problem is that the decree became legally moot – or of no consequence whatsoever – “on the day the ACLU’s clients graduated, less than four weeks after it was issued.
“Moreover, without clients that have a legal interest in the litigation, the ACLU was legally barred from continuing to litigate against the people of Santa Rosa County. The ACLU and the school district knew this but conspired to hide the fact that the two anonymous plaintiffs graduated. In the consent decree they jointly submitted to the court, they inserted provisions purporting to require the court to retain jurisdiction for at least five years, thereby inferring that their anonymous clients were much younger. They also asked the court to conceal the plaintiffs’ identity for another five years, so that no one would know they graduated,” according to Liberty Counsel’s report.
U.S. District Judge M. Casey Rodgers now has ordered that the participants “shall submit memoranda to the court by the close of business on April 7, 2010, advising the court on the status of the named plaintiffs’ continued interest in this litigation, the continued validity of the injunctive consent decree, and the basis for this court’s continued enforcement jurisdiction over the consent decree.”
The plaintiffs have always been identified only as “Minor I Doe” and “Minor II Doe.”
“It has been brought to the court’s attention that the two plaintiffs may have graduated from high school and thus no longer suffer a threat of harm from the school board’s policies and practices,” the judge warned.
This, he said, “raises questions regarding the court’s continued enforcement jurisdiction over the decree as well as the validity of the continuing nature of the injunctive relief provided by the consent decree. This case was not a class action. Even though the plaintiffs prevailed on the merits of their cause of action … if the named plaintiffs no longer have a continuing interest in the suit, there is a genuine issue regarding mootness … which must be addressed.”
Liberty Counsel’s report said, “The ACLU’s conspiracy is now unraveling. Liberty Counsel raised the issue of mootness last year and then again in the motion earlier this year. The federal court that entered the consent decree, which has literally forced teachers and staff to hide in closets to pray, has now demanded an explanation from the ACLU and the school district as to why it should continue to enforce that consent decree.”
Mathew Staver, chairman of Liberty Counsel, said, “The errors in judgment by the ACLU and the school district are stunning. The school district agreed to enter into an unconstitutional consent decree that was legally effective for less than one month, then agreed to pay the ACLU a whopping $200,000, and then expended a great deal of additional resources to oppose Liberty Counsel’s intervention and defend the unconstitutional and moot consent decree.
“From the beginning, our position has been that this order should be set aside. We will not rest until that happens. If the school board does not come to its senses and seize the opportunity before it to make things right, the voters of Santa Rosa County will hold them accountable in the next election.”
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 testimony, Winkler broke down on the witness stand as she told a story about how her co-worker 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.
Liberty Counsel earlier 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 case 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.
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.