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Teachers say they are literally forced to pray in school closets to avoid contempt charges

A law firm that has fought on behalf of individual and civil rights on a Florida high school campus says it may suggest sanctions against the ACLU after the organization was caught pursuing arguments in a dispute that technically had ended nearly a year earlier.

WND reported earlier on the case involving an order crafted last year 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.

But the federal judge handling the dispute that forced an employee to hide in a closet to pray over a family’s loss of a 2-year-old child recently demanded to see documentation about the status of the plaintiffs, whose identities were being kept secret.

U.S. District Judge M. Casey Rodgers ruled the case 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.

The plantiff’s absence, 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.”

Now, according to Liberty Counsel, which has worked on behalf of several school officials targeted by accusations in the ongoing dispute, it’s “game over” for the war against students in the district.

“Documents submitted by the ACLU and the school board of Santa Rosa County yesterday have now confirmed what Liberty Counsel has maintained all along in the litigation over the unconstitutional consent decree… the two anonymous plaintiffs represented by the ACLU graduated from Pace High School in May 2009, and the ACLU has been litigating without clients ever since,” Liberty Counsel said in a statement.

Liberty Counsel Chairman Mathew D. Staver said, “Even a first-year law student knows that federal courts cannot enforce a consent decree absent jurisdiction over the parties. Now that the plaintiffs’ graduation has been confirmed, Liberty Counsel will ask the court to vacate the consent decree and every other decision it has rendered since the graduation of these two plaintiffs.

“Liberty Counsel will also request that the court severely sanction the ACLU for its deception. The day that freedom returns to Santa Rosa County is near,” he said.

A court’s options for sanctions range widely, but Staver told WND the judge could order the ACLU to return “a good portion” of the $200,000 in fees that the school district paid last year only two dozen days before the plaintiffs graduated and the case became moot. School documentation also revealed there has been “no continuing contacts between plaintiffs and Pace High School and/or the school district.”

Then there also is the cost of the litigation that has continued since that May 2009 graduation, Staver said.

Further, there is the possibility that the actual lawyers who worked on the ACLU’s side could face disciplinary action from the bar association.

Liberty Counsel cited documentation from the school that the ACLU’s clients in the dispute were seniors in May 2009 and subsequently graduated.

“And, the documents confirm that the ACLU and the school district have known about the plaintiffs’ graduation all along, because plaintiffs voluntarily disclosed their identity to their teachers and classmates, and because plaintiffs disclosed their grade level in prior discovery documents. Those discovery documents, now submitted to the court, indicate that prior to May 2009, each plaintiff advised the school board and the ACLU that ‘I am currently a Pace High senior,’” the report from Liberty Counsel confirmed.

Liberty Counsel said sanctions are reasonable since the ACLU knew that the case was over, yet continued arguments, creating “a colossal waste of time and judicial resources in the year of litigation since plaintiffs’ graduation.”

School officials, “politically speaking,” will have to “justify [their] decision to enter into the consent decree in May 2009 and to pay the ACLU $200,000 in attorney’s fees, when [they] could have simply waited three more weeks for plaintiffs to graduate and for their claims to automatically become moot by operation of law.”

The ACLU did not respond to a WND message requesting comment.

According to a report at Values Voter News, a clerk in the school, Michelle Winkler, told of hiding inside a closet in the school when a co-worker sought comfort from her after the loss of the co-worker’s 2-year-old child.

The two hid in the closet because they were worried about being seen and being held in contempt of court under the ACLU-negotiated decree.

According to Liberty Counsel, under the decree it was trying to overturn, 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.

Liberty Counsel noted that the ACLU had asked the court to declare it was retaining jurisdiction for another five years, inferring the 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.

Staver said in a Liberty Counsel report, “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.”

As WND reported, Winkler faced contempt charges after her husband read a prayer at a private banquet held at a naval base to honor non-instructional school-district employees. The judge eventually found 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.

 

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 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.


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