Officials in the Santa Rosa County, Fla., School District have agreed to gut an ACLU-inspired consent decree they imposed on students and faculty several years ago and pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to settle a legal challenge to their decision that banned ordinary phrases such as “God bless” from their campuses.

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

Word of the settlement was announced yesterday by the nonprofit Liberty Counsel, which represented faculty and students in the district after the ACLU decree was adopted several years ago.

The restrictions were so draconian that employee Michelle Winkler in 2009 was charged with contempt after her husband, who is not employed by the district, offered a meal prayer at a private event in a neighboring county.

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During testimony in the case, she also described how she and a co-worker, who recently had lost a child, had to hide in a closet to pray.

Further, former Pace High School Principal Frank Lay, now retired, and Athletic Director Robert Freeman were tried for contempt after the ACLU demanded that they be punished. Freeman had been accused of offering a blessing for a lunch for some 20 adult booster club members.

While the battle over their own rights were raging in court, members of the 2009 graduating class at Pace expressed their objections to the ACLU restrictions on statements of religious faith by rising up en masse at their ceremony and reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

The consent decree that led to criminal indictments against school employees for prayer and banned ‘God Bless’ will now be gutted and revised, according to the announcement from Liberty Counsel.

“The amended consent decree will restore dozens of constitutional religious freedoms that were previously denied. In addition, Liberty Counsel and Christian Educators Association International will be awarded $265,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs from an insurance provider, not the taxpayers, to compensate them for the litigation caused by the ACLU and the district,” Liberty Counsel reported.

“We are pleased that freedom has been restored to Santa Rose County,” said Mathew D. Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel and dean of Liberty University School of Law. “It is appropriate to celebrate these restored freedoms as America celebrates Independence Day. From the beginning we contended that this consent decree went too far and swallowed up the rights of teachers, staff, students and members of the community. The Constitution is not some relic that can be discarded at will.”

Staver told WND that the school’s policy prompted the Florida legislature to adopt a law that will prevent school districts from adopting any agreements that infringe on the rights of their students or employees without written permission from those parties.

School officials could not be reached for comment tonight. They had a telephone answering machine that disconnected callers.

The decree noted that the judge already had ordered the case to trial.

Staver told WND a significant part of the problem arose from the previous agreement between the school district and the ACLU. It stipulated that teachers and staff were “on duty” no matter where they were or when, as long as any student was present.

That meant they were not allowed to express any statement of faith during volunteer events such as Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings, a local church service or a basketball game in a neighboring town if any student was present.

“It was like a classroom setting [all the time],” Staver explained. “They couldn’t pray. They couldn’t bow their heads. They couldn’t talk about God.

“They weren’t even allowed to hit ‘reply’ if an e-mail from a parent mentioned God or said ‘God bless you,” Staver said.

He said those guidelines remain for official classroom settings, but teachers and faculty have been relieved of such burdens at all other times.

The settlement concludes a two-year court battle that threatened religious freedoms of Americans everywhere and made headlines across the nation for its anti-Christian attacks, Liberty Counsel said.

The notice of settlement, filed today in court, awaits approval by the court and a formal adoption by the school board.

LC reported, “Liberty Counsel’s clients who are teachers will now be able to pray at school during their break times, pray during school events in a nonofficial capacity, attend and fully participate in baccalaureate services, have a Bible on their desk, wear religious jewelry, and assign readings from the Bible to students when relevant to nonreligious academic assignments. Students will be allowed to voluntarily pray, submit religious answers in homework, and freely participate in private, after-school religious programs.”

The original ACLU decree was the result of an earlier lawsuit prompted by complaints that adults were praying at optional and privately sponsored off-campus events in the district.

It arose 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 ACLU which since then had been used to threaten employees with fines and jail time for actions as personal as praying over a meal.

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