School prayer charges stir protests
August 17~ 2009
Julia Duin — Washington Times
Students~ teachers and local pastors are protesting over a court case involving a northern Florida school principal and an athletic director who are facing criminal charges and up to six months in jail over their offer of a mealtime prayer.
There have been yard signs~ T-shirts and a mass student protest during graduation ceremonies this spring on behalf of Pace High School Principal Frank Lay and school athletic director Robert Freeman~ who will go on trial Sept. 17 at a federal district court in Pensacola for breaching the conditions of a lawsuit settlement reached last year with the American Civil Liberties Union.
“I have been defending religious freedom issues for 22 years~ and I’ve never had to defend somebody who has been charged criminally for praying~” said Mathew Staver~ founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel~ the Orlando-based legal group that is defending the two school officials.
An ACLU official said the school district has allowed “flagrant” violations of the First Amendment for years.
The fight involving the ACLU~ the school district and several devout Christian employees began last August when the ACLU sued Santa Rosa County Schools on behalf of two students who had complained privately to the group’s Florida affiliate~ claiming some teachers and administrators were allowing prayers at school events such as graduations~ orchestrating separate religiously themed graduation services~ and “proselytizing” students during class and after school.
In January~ the Santa Rosa County School District settled out of court with the ACLU~ agreeing to several things~ including a provision to bar all school employees from promoting or sponsoring prayers during school-sponsored events; holding school events at church venues when a secular alternative was available; or promoting their religious beliefs or attempting to convert students in class or during school-sponsored events.
Mr. Staver said the district also agreed to forbid senior class President Mary Allen from speaking at the school’s May 30 graduation ceremony on the chance that the young woman~ a known Christian~ might say something religious.
“She was the first student body president in 33 years not allowed to speak~” he said.
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