Bob Unruh joined WND in 2006 after nearly three decades with the Associated Press, as well as several Upper Midwest newspapers, where he covered everything from legislative battles and sports to tornadoes and homicidal survivalists. He is also a photographer whose scenic work has been used commercially.More ↓Less ↑
A federal district court has been asked to investigate whether the principal of a public school in Florida caught up in a long-running fight raised by the American Civil Liberties Union over prayer was used as a defendant in a case without his knowledge or authorization.
The questions are raised in a notice filed with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida by Liberty Counsel, which has been trying to overturn a deal set up with the school board that has been described as largely stripping teachers and faculty members of their constitutional right to expression and religion.
Teachers say they are literally forced to pray in school closets to avoid contempt charges
The heart of the case stems from complaints that adults were praying at optional and privately sponsored off-campus events in the Santa Rosa County School District. The situation has generated concerns that school staff members, for fear of reprisals, were forced to hide in a closet to pray when a family lost a child.
The original case came after two high school seniors in 2008 brought the complaint under the pseudonym of “Doe.” The final solution adopted by the school board was a “Consent Decree” crafted by the American Civil Liberties Union which since then has been used to threaten employees with fines and jail time for something as personal as praying over a meal.
Liberty Counsel then brought a legal challenge to the actions and now with its “Notice of Potentially Improper or Unethical Conduct” is requesting an investigation into how a new principal at Pace High School, Bryan Shell, became involved in the case.
The formal notice explains that while paperwork was filed on behalf of Shell in the legal clash, “it appears, however, that the principal has never authorized any of these actions to be taken on behalf of his office.”
The request includes two affidavits from school employees who have verified that Shell was “shocked” to learn that he had been added to the case as a defendant.
“The principal is apparently upset and angry that others are litigating on his behalf and in the name of his office without informing him or seeking his authorization,” the legal notification affirms.
“These facts suggest that the two existing defendants in this suit may have considered the court’s invitation to the principal as merely an opportunity for them to have a third bite of the litigation apple, and are using the office of principal to suit their purposes without the knowledge, much less authorization, of the duly appointed occupant of that office,” Liberty Counsel wrote.
The affirmations about the principal’s concerns came from Bridget Head, his secretary, and Martha Gough, a teacher at the school.
“Mr. Shell also told me that he had not even seen any of the documents that were purportedly filed on behalf of his office in this lawsuit before they were filed,” Gough’s statement said.
The Liberty Counsel filing requested an investigation into the circumstances.
According to a Liberty Counsel statement, the actions “enlarge the shroud of doubt over the actions of the Santa Rosa County School Board, the superintendent and the ACLU.”
As part of the long battle in the district, Liberty Counsel was successful in 2009 defending employee Michelle Winkler on contempt charges brought by the ACLU after her husband, who is not employed by the district, offered a meal prayer at a private event in a neighboring county.
Also, Liberty Counsel successfully defended former Pace High School Principal Frank Lay, now retired, and Athletic Director Robert Freeman on criminal contempt charges. The ACLU complained that Freeman offered a blessing for a lunch for some 20 adult booster club members.
According to Liberty Counsel, under the decree and the official district guidelines, “teachers are always considered to be acting in their ‘official capacity’ whenever a student is present, even at private functions off campus. Teachers cannot pray, bow their heads or fold their hands to show agreement with anyone who does pray. Teachers and staff cannot ‘Reply’ to an e-mail sent by a parent if the parent’s e-mail refers to God or Scripture. Teachers either have to delete such references from the original e-mail or reply by initiating a new e-mail. Teachers and staff are also required to stop students from praying in their own private club meetings. During witness testimony, Winkler cried as she described how she and a coworker, who had recently lost a child, had to hide in a closet to pray.”
WND also reported when Florida lawmakers got involved in the case. They
adopted a new law that reads, “District school boards, administrative personnel and instructional personnel are prohibited from taking affirmative action, including, but not limited to, the entry into any agreement, that infringes or waives the rights or freedoms afforded to instructional personnel, school staff or students by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, in the absence of the express written consent of any individual whose constitutional rights would be impacted by such infringement or waiver.”
Reports confirm 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.
Nearly 400 graduating seniors at Pace stood up at their graduation, according to Mathew Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel. Parents, family and friends joined in the recitation and applauded the students when they were finished, Staver told WND.