Principal Frank Lay
A judge today cleared the principal of Pace High School in Florida of a criminal contempt charge after the American Civil Liberties Union complained that Frank Lay and Athletic Director Robert Freeman violated a court order.
Freeman also had faced the same criminal contempt charge, but also was cleared.
Judge M. Case Rodgers decided that the meal blessing – requested by Lay and delivered by Freeman – was on church property and was spontaneous, therefore lacking an intent to violate the order.
The men were represented by Liberty Counsel. The day-long hearing in a Pensacola, Fla., federal courtroom stemmed from an off-campus event at which donors to a school athletic field house project were honored.
Liberty Counsel said the federal courtroom was packed with people supporting Lay and Freeman. The Pace High School students made T-shirts with the image of a potato chip that read: “Lay’s Supportive Patriots.”
The case had gained national attention. Earlier this week, Congressman Randy Forbes, the chair of the bi-partisan Congressional Prayer Caucus, co-chair Mike McIntyre and U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, whose district includes Santa Rosa County, along with more than 60 members of the caucus, issued a letter of support and talked about this case on the House floor. In his speech, Forbes warned that this case represents what might be coming as result of the ACLU’s agenda:
“Make no mistake, there will come a day when the Speaker of this House will be hauled into federal court and threatened with jail because she dares to stand at that podium where you stand tonight and ask the chaplain to start our day with prayer,” he said.
The men had faced penalties of up to six months in jail and $5,000 in fines each.
The situation began several years ago when two anonymous students sued with the help of the ACLU over long-standing practices at the school allowing prayer at some events.
Rodgers issued a temporary injunction last January halting the practices.
Lay was accused of asking Freeman to bless the food, which he did, at the off-campus event.
Charges were brought against her for being at a private banquet held at a Naval base to honor non-instructional school district employees when her husband read a brief blessing prior to the meal, according to reports of the case.
The ACLU alleged that also subjected her to contempt charges.
In her case, Rodgers found that Winkler’s husband’s prayer at a voluntary gathering outside of school did not violate any court order.
Liberty Counsel founder Mathew D. Staver expressed relief over that victory but frustration over the ACLU’s actions.
“The wheels came off the ACLU’s steamroller. While we are pleased with the ruling, we are saddened that a wonderful woman had to spend a day in court, with the ACLU’s crosshairs aimed at her back. Prayer is neither contemptuous nor criminal. It is outrageous that the ACLU sought civil contempt charges against an outstanding woman whose husband prayed a beautiful prayer at a privately sponsored event held off campus. The ACLU needs to take a good dose of the First Amendment and call us in the morning,” he said.
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.
“Neither students nor teachers shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate,” said Staver, who also is dean of Liberty University School of Law. “The students at Pace High School refused to remain silent and were not about to be bullied by the ACLU.
“Schools are not religion-free zones, and any attempt to make them so is unconstitutional,” he said.
Staver said class members, furious with the ACLU for hijacking their free speech rights, assembled the plan on their own. As soon as Lay asked everyone to be seated for the graduation ceremony, the graduating seniors remained standing and recited the Lord’s Prayer.