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

Lawmakers in Florida have decided to slap down school boards whose members try to appease the ACLU with a “consent decree” or other agreement that limits student, faculty and staff religious and speech rights protected by the First Amendment.

The new law, which goes into effect July 1, is a response to a school-endorsed “consent degree” in the Santa Rosa County School District that demanded a student change “God bless” to “good luck.” The law requires a school to get permission from those whose rights are impacted before agreeing to any such plan.

The state’s new HB 31 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.”

Mathew Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel and dean of Liberty University School of Law, said, “Liberty Counsel will ask the Santa Rosa School District to request the court to reconsider the consent decree in light of this new law. Liberty Counsel will continue to press this case until the consent decree is set aside. Not only is the decree unconstitutional, it is also moot, since the ACLU student plaintiffs graduated three weeks before the order became final.

“This consent decree,” he said, “drafted by the ACLU and agreed to by the superintendent, is the most unconstitutional order I have ever read. It was written as though the First Amendment does not exist. It is only a matter of time before this consent decree is overturned.”

The case already has generated a lawsuit against the district. The case developed when the district made 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 Liberty Counsel report said.

The claims against Santa Rosa County School District 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.

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

The Santa Rosa restrictions prohibited religious expression such as voluntary, student-initiated prayer or off-the-clock religious discussion among adults, critics said.

Liberty Counsel had announced just a few days earlier it was requesting an injunction against the district and its superintendent, Tim Wyrosdick.

Staver said the order conflicts directly with opinions from the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Schools are not religious-free zones,” he said.

The Liberty Counsel complaint claims injury to 22 individuals representing students, faculty and staff as well as members of the community.

The firm said under the school’s agreement, teachers were prevented from replying to e-mails sent by parents if words such as “God bless” were included, and district employees were not allowed to participate in privately sponsored off-campus religious events.

The policy also was used to prevent then-Pace High School student president Mary Allen from speaking at her own high school graduation.

The dispute remains volatile. WND reported Liberty Counsel declared 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.

Said Staver, “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.”

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.

Members of the 2009 graduating class at 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.

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.