- WND - http://www.wnd.com -

School sued after teachers hide in closets to pray

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

A Florida school district is being accused in a lawsuit of making a deal with the ACLU to criminalize “protected religious expression,” banning students from saying “God bless” and forcing teachers to “hide in closets to pray.”

The claims against Santa Rosa County School District come in a complaint filed today by Liberty Counsel, which has been involved in the dispute just about from the beginning.

The original issue was that two students – whose names were withheld – complained that staff or faculty members were expressing their religious views at places such as off-campus dinners to honor school workers.

Liberty Counsel lawyers said they volunteered to work for free for the school to protect the First Amendment rights at issue.

“But the school district decided instead to shake hands with the ACLU, pay the ACLU $200,000 in legal fees, and voluntarily enter into the Consent Decree that obliterates religious freedom and makes a mockery of the First Amendment,” Liberty Counsel said in its description of the conflict.

Since then, three school officials have faced civil and criminal contempt charges demanded by the ACLU and the school district but have been cleared.

The decree, however, still is having impacts.

“Students can no longer say ‘God Bless,’ teachers must hide in closets to pray, parents cannot communicate frankly with teachers, volunteers cannot answer any questions regarding religion, Christian groups cannot rent school facilities for private religious functions benefiting students, and pastors are dictated how they can and cannot seat their audiences at private, religious baccalaureate services held inside their own houses of worship,” Liberty Counsel said.

The dispute remains volatile. WND reported only days ago that Liberty Counsel confirmed it was “game over” because the ACLU admitted in court documents that the two anonymous plaintiffs graduated from the district’s Pace High School in May 2009, effectively ending the court’s jurisdiction in the case.

The problem is that the consent decree and a long series of court orders had been continued after that technical stopping point was reached.

At the time, Liberty Counsel Chairman Mathew D. Staver said, “Even a first-year law student knows that federal courts cannot enforce a consent degree 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.”

Other penalties also are a possibility, the law firm said.

School officials, contacted by WND, refused to comment directly on the case.

Instead, the school issued a statement accusing Liberty Counsel of making errors in its press release, and claimed “staff is only prohibited from promoting their own religious beliefs to students in their capacity as teachers.”

The statement, released to WND by Marilyne Pugh, secretary to Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick, continued, “Further, parents may certainly communicate with teachers as they wish and nothing in the consent decree outlaws such communications. Religious groups may and do have access to district facilities on the same basis as other community groups. The district does not have any say as to how a minister chooses to seat the congregation. The court’s order, however, would not permit group seating of teachers in a manner that would give the clear appearance of the school endorsing the baccalaureate, which is a religious event.”

The statement also complained that “new litigation” was arising that involves the school, “which will necessarily divert the attention of our staff from their primary function of education students and divert already sparse funds away from the classroom.”

WND reported earlier on the case involving 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. The “official capacity” would include even when they are attending an athletic competition to watch their own children or grandchildren.

The new case is being brought on behalf of a long list of faculty, parents and students.

Named as defendants are the district and Wyrosdick. The case asks the court for preliminary and permanent relief halting any enforcement of the ACLU’s consent degree.

The complaint alleges violations of the rights to freedom of speech, association, equal protection and free exercise of religion under the First and Fourteen Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

All of the plaintiffs, according to Liberty Counsel, “have been silenced, censored, intimidated or harassed by the school district and its partner, the American Civil Liberties Union.”

The complaint outlined the problems for James T. Waters, an associate pastor at First Baptist Church of Milton.

He previously had organized and led programs called “Youth Alive” at Hobbs Middle School and “Differencemakers” at King Middle School by creating a curriculum and leading the events for students “who voluntarily attended them outside of regular school hours.”

The events taught students responsibility, character, moral values and civil duties.

“Since the Santa Rosa County School Board makes public school facilities available for use by private individuals and groups outside of regular school hours, Plaintiff Waters decided that it would be most convenient to conduct these programs at public school facilities, so that students can attend them without the need for separate transportation to an off-campus facility,” the lawsuit said.

Before the decree, the programs “were a great success.” But after, school officials “felt compelled … to prohibit Plaintiff Waters from regularly attending these programs.”

“They told him that … [he] could not longer be a regular speaker at the very programs he organized,” the lawsuit said.

Among other limitations: “Defendant school board prohibit[s] teachers who attend privately-sponsored, voluntary religious events, held outside of school hours, from sitting together in one bloc, from wearing similar graduation attire … or from leading or directing the baccalaureate services.”

The school even issued a list of words that “should not be used when creating an agenda for a program/event/activity” and that included “devotional pledge” “invocation” and “inspirational message.”

Nor could the word “blessed” be on any school website. And the school banned forwarding any e-mail with any “religious message,” banned references to a baccalaureate on the school calendar and even said this: “In conversation, if someone asks their supervisor, ‘How are you?’ may the supervisor respond with ‘I am blessed?’ Yes, as long as they do not elaborate on the connotation of blessed,” the school said.

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.

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.