School officials going to court for breaking pledge not to pray

Published September 4, 2009 6:00 am
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Two Florida school officials will be in court this month to answer accusations that they violated a court order when they prayed in public after a school secretary was cleared on similar allegations.

The case, which defense attorneys say is an unprecedented display of government intrusion into the right of personal religious expression, pits the American Civil Liberties Union against two Christian school employees.

Principal Frank Lay and athletic director Robert Freeman of Santa Rosa County, in northern Florida, agreed to a settlement last January after the ACLU sued on behalf of two students who alleged improper proselytizing.

"There were some of the most egregious First Amendment violations you'll see," ACLU spokesman Will Matthews said.

The lawsuit alleged four separate violations of improper mixing of church and state: prayer at school, staging a religious baccalaureate service, school events held at churches, and general proselytizing and promoting of the teachers' personal religious beliefs at school.

As part of the settlement, Lay, Freeman and secretary Michelle Winkler agreed to limit expressions of their private faith in a public school setting.

"The order was entered with the consent of all parties involved," said Benjamin Stevenson, a staff attorney from the ACLU of Florida.

But Mathew Staver, the founder of the conservative legal group Liberty Counsel and dean of Liberty University's law school, said the three employees received inadequate defense from the county school board and argues the court settlement is unconstitutional.

"The case is about the First Amendment right to freedom of speech," Staver said.

According to the ACLU, just days after the settlement, Lay asked that a blessing be said over a luncheon for the Field House dedication at Pace High. Lay and Freeman, who offered the prayer, now face contempt-of-court charges for allegedly violating the settlement.

Both men are expected to appear in court Sept. 17. Staver, in a statement, said prayer is "neither contemptuous nor criminal" and accused the ACLU of overreacting.

"The ACLU needs to take a good dose of the First Amendment," he said, "and call us in the morning."

Lay and Freeman could face a fine and/or six months in jail for their actions. Matthews does not expect either defendant to face time behind bars. "We have not advocated that this is something [either man] should be put in jail for."

A federal judge already has cleared Winkler, the secretary, on related charges after a seven-hour court hearing Aug. 21. Winkler was accused of arranging for her husband, who is not a school employee, to read a prayer she had written for an Employee of the Year banquet.

Stevenson had alleged that the settlement not only prohibited employee-led prayer, but also kept employees from "promoting, advancing, aiding, facilitating, endorsing or causing religious prayers or devotionals during school-sponsored events."

Staver said the banquet was privately funded and argued the court order infringes on the right to free speech of the school employees and their spouses.

"Nobody who has any clue about constitutional law," Staver said, "would allow a court order of this magnitude."

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