Religious Freedom

School district, ACLU challenge rights of students, staff

Mathew Staver has been defending religious freedom issues for more than two decades, but he’s never had a case quite like the one he’s defending now in Florida.

And the ramifications from the case are likely to be significant.

The defendants — a high school principal and a school athletic director — have been criminally charged for “merely having a prayer said over a meal,” states Staver, the founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel.

If convicted both employees of Pace High School in Milton, Fla., could face up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine. In addition, the employees, who collectively have more than 70 years of service, could lose their state retirement benefits.

The Settlement

At one level this case can be viewed as an attack on the rights of Christian employees of the Santa Rosa County school system. On a grander scale, it’s a symptom of the growing antagonism that Christians face — students and teachers alike — in the public school system of this nation.

Staver said the case in Florida has its roots from the settlement of a lawsuit by the school district and the American Civil Liberties Union back in 2008. Rather than “vigorously defending” the rights of the teachers and students, Staver said the school system entered into an agreement with the ACLU through the court to govern the activities of the school system’s teachers and students.

“That court order is so broad it is infringing on the legitimate free speech rights of teachers, administrators and students,” he said.

That settlement included provisions prohibiting school officials from:

• Promoting, advancing, aiding, facilitating, endorsing, or causing religious prayers or devotionals during school-sponsored events;

• Permitting school officials to promote their personal religious beliefs and proselytize students in class or during school-sponsored events and activities; and

• Otherwise unconstitutionally endorsing or coercing religion.

That settlement has had major ramifications.

“It Gets to be Ridiculous”

In addition to the charges facing Frank Lay, principal at Pace High School, and the school’s athletic director, Robert Freeman, Christian students’ voices have also been silenced. For example, last May at the school’s graduation, the Pace High School senior class president was not allowed to speak simply because she was a Christian, Staver said. The school system was afraid she might say something religious.

What kind of a precedent does that set? Forget the fact that schools don’t have the right to censor students’ religious speech at such events; this student was forbidden to speak simply because she affiliated herself with Christ.

“It gets to be ridiculous,” Staver said.

The students at the graduation, however, didn’t take this sitting down. According to an article in the Washington Times, many of the seniors attending the graduation ceremony taped crosses on their mortarboards and, during the ceremony, spontaneously stood together and recited the Lord’s Prayer.

Good for them. It’s time that the folks affected by such attacks stand up for their rights and, more importantly, take a stand for Christ. It’s time the ACLU and other such groups learn that Christians aren’t willing to let those groups define what they can or can’t do — even in the public school system.

The Case

The case against Lay and Freeman, according to Staver, stemmed from a booster club luncheon honoring private individuals from the community. No students, he said, were at the event, though some reports state that culinary class students prepared and served the meal.

Lay’s crime, according to the ACLU: He asked Freeman to pray before the meal. Freeman’s crime: He prayed.

Then the ACLU got involved.

“Decisions about the religious upbringing of children should be left in the hands of parents, not school officials,” Daniel Mach, the ACLU director of litigation for its freedom of religion program, told the Washington Times. “If school officials were promoting non-majority faiths and religious viewpoints, I suspect there’d be an uproar.”

But would that uproar include the ACLU speaking out?

The fact is, the ACLU has targeted Christian students, administrators and teachers in Santa Rosa County Schools and that district, through its agreement with the ACLU, abandoned the rights that should have been protecting them.

A year ago the ACLU sued the school district claiming that some school staff were allowing prayers at various school events. At that point, Staver believes the school system should have defended the rights of the students. Instead, it entered into that out-of-court settlement with the ACLU that Staver says infringes on the rights of the Christian students and staff. “They (the school system representatives) were intimidated by the ACLU and didn’t want to put up a big defense,” Staver said.

Taking Up the Cause

But Liberty Counsel has taken up the cause. In addition to defending the two administrators at Pace High School, Staver is seeking to have Liberty Counsel named as counsel representing Christian Educators Association International, a group that represents Christian educators in that area. His hope is to work to get the agreement between the ACLU and the school system there overturned.

“We will ask the court to set aside that previous order,” Staver said. “It’s no more legal to do that, than it is to come into an agreement to segregate your schools.”

Staver said, in effect, the ACLU has tried to bully the school system and the Christian students and educators in that school division “into absolute silence” about their faith.

As for Lay, he is not willing to be silenced. The school principal, who attends Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, Fla., told The Pensacola News Journal, “My faith is who I am. I am a Christian. I am a believer. I am not ashamed of the faith.”

Good for him.

And area residents have taken up the cause, collecting money for the defense fund of Lay and Freeman by selling anti-ACLU T-shirts and holding fundraisers. “Pray for our schools” signs have sent a positive message to help with the cause as well.

The case is set to go to trial on Sept. 17 in federal district court in Pensacola.

In addition to that case, Liberty Counsel is defending Michelle Winkler, a clerical assistant in the school system, on a contempt of court charge for violating the settlement. That charge is based on an incident in which she allegedly asked her husband, who isn’t a school employee, to say a prayer at a school-sponsored event for non-instructional employees held off campus.

“It is a sad day in America when school officials are criminally prosecuted for a prayer over a meal,” Staver said last week. “It is outrageous and an offense to the First Amendment to punish a school official for a simple prayer.”

These will be cases worth watching.

By Tom Wilmoth