In what critics are characterizing as the “criminalization of prayer,” a principal and an athletic director at a Florida high school are facing criminal contempt charges for violating a federal order prohibiting prayer at school events.
Principal Frank Lay and Athletic Director Robert Freeman at Pace High School in the Florida panhandle county of Santa Rosa could face fines, jail time and loss of their retirement benefits.
During a luncheon to honor those who contributed toward the public school's athletic Field House, Principal Lay reportedly asked Freeman to offer a blessing for the meal. Students were not present at the time of the blessing.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) charged that the action constituted a violation of a previous court order and accused Lay and Freeman of contempt of court.
Last year the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Santa Rosa County School District, charging that some of the teachers and administration endorsed religion. The school district did not fight the suit but consented to an order fashioned by the ACLU.
“School officials shall neither offer nor participate in a prayer during or in conjunction with a school event,” part of the order read.
“School officials shall not authorize students, student groups, a student body… or third parties to include prayer, whether or not it is noted in a printed program, during or in conjunction with a school event,” the order continued. It barred “non-student third-parties” from offering a prayer, invocation, benediction or other religious remarks during or in conjunction with a school event.
U.S. Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-V), a co-chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, criticized the trial of the two school officials in a Wednesday speech on the House floor.
“Under the order issued by this judge in this court,” he claimed, “this principal would not have been able to ask the president of the United States to speak at the school if the president concluded his speech, as he often does, with the phrase ‘God bless America.’”
He charged that the precedent set by this case would eventually result in the Speaker of the House and the House chaplain being threatened with jail for asking for and delivering a prayer, respectively.
Rep. Forbes invoked the Founding Fathers who were dedicated to a set of rights “given to us by the very Creator, the mention of whom by this principal or this athletic director could now lead them to a jail term.”
“It’s time for Americans to simply say ‘enough is enough,'” Forbes stated.
Rep. Forbes and a bipartisan group of 60 Members of Congress have signed a letter of support to Lay and Freeman.
“The tradition of offering prayer in America has become so interwoven into our nation’s spiritual heritage that to charge someone criminally for engaging in such an innocent practice would astonish the men who founded this country on religious liberty,” their letter said.
The letter noted that Rev. William Linn, the Chaplain of the House in the first session of Congress, began the tradition of beginning each legislative day with prayer.
Lay and Freeman will be put on trial on Thursday, September 17.