.- A judge ruled on Thursday that a rural Florida panhandle high school principal and athletic director did not violate a federal court order barring prayer at school events.
Pace High School Principal Frank Lay and Athletic Director Robert Freeman could have faced up to six months in jail and $5,000 in fines if convicted of violating a 2008 settlement the Santa Rosa County District had reached in the lawsuit.
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.
In a lengthy Thursday speech, Judge Casey Rogers said she did not believe the two men intended to violate her order barring prayer from school-sponsored events. She accepted that Lay had made a mistake by asking Freeman to offer the prayer because praying had been done at the school for 20 years. She also ruled that Freeman was only following the orders of his superior.
The judge also noted that Lay had followed the court order at previous events and had not offered prayers in settings when he had typically offered prayers in the past.
However, Judge Rogers admonished Lay and said his responsibility as a principal was to ensure the order was followed.
“At the time the school board admitted liability, your school was at the center of the controversy. You said that you agreed these actions had to stop and you agreed to the injunction. You had a responsibility to this court, to the school board and to the citizens of Santa Rosa County as the highest-ranking official at that school,” the judge said, according to the Miami Herald.
Judge Rodgers also questioned videotaped comments Lay had made. Lay, who is also a Baptist church deacon, told a crowd at a church rally for the school that he could not “park my religion and leave it in the school parking lot like I do my Jeep. It will ooze out of me.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Randy Hensel had argued that the two defendants read and accepted the court order and knew that praying at the lunch meeting on school property was an obvious violation of the court agreement, the Miami Herald says.
Responding to the decision in remarks to supporters outside the Pensacola Federal Court House, Ray said: “Above all I want to thank my chief counsel, God our Father.”
Supporters had also packed the federal courtroom. Some students from the high school made T-shirts with the image of a potato chip that read “Lay’s Supportive Patriots.”
Congressional leaders, including the chair of the bipartisan Congressional Prayer Caucus, had spoken on the floor of the U.S. House in support of Lay and Freeman. More than 60 members of Congress, including local U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, also sent 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 freedom,” their letter read.
Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit dedicated to religious freedom issues, helped represent the school officials. Its founder, Mathew D. Staver, commented on the decision.
“It is ridiculous that these men even had to think twice about blessing a meal,” Staver said. “To criminalize the prayer conflicts with our Nation’s founding and guiding principles and goes directly against our constitutionally protected rights. It is fitting that on National Constitution Day, our religious freedoms are preserved so that people – regardless of their employment – are free to say a meal blessing.”