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

The Florida dispute over a “Consent Decree” adopted by school officials that critics charge violates the First Amendment and abridges the rights of teachers and students alike has been escalated to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where a petition is asking the judges to strike it down.

The newest filing in the long-running dispute over complaints of prayers at some off-campus events in the Santa Rosa County School District was filed by Liberty Counsel.

The document is on behalf of efforts by the Christian Educators Association International to intervene in the case. The organization has interests in the outcome and had tried to enter at the trial court level, but was rejected by the judge.

The case originated when two high school seniors in 2008 brought the complaint under the pseudonym of “Doe.” The 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.

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For example, Liberty Counsel was successful in 2009 defending 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, on Constitution Day, Liberty Counsel successfully defended Pace High School Principal Frank Lay 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.”

As a result, Liberty Counsel also initiated a separate lawsuit against the district on behalf of faculty, staff and students whose rights “are infringed” by the decree.

Mathew Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, said, “Public schools are not religion-free zones, yet this ACLU-crafted court order criminalizes Christianity and censors religious expression, even outside of school time. We will not rest until this unconstitutional order is overturned.”

The appeal brief argues that the district court was mistaken, because the “Consent Decree” involved resolution of a case involving those two students alone, and it was not a class action case. Therefore, when they graduated and separated from the school, the case should have ended.

“The Consent Decree must be vacated as moot and the action dismissed for want of jurisdiction,” the brief contends. “It is well-settled that graduation moots the interest of former students in declaratory or injunctive relief against their former schools.

“It is now undisputed that both plaintiffs graduated on May 30, 2009, and have ‘no continuing contacts [with] Pace High School and/or the school district,'” it says.

WND reported weeks ago 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.”

Staver called the Consent Decree “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,” he 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 off-campus 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.

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

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.

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.

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