Prayer order unsealed

Published on Aug. 4, 2009 in the Pensacola News Journal

A federal judge on Monday unsealed her order requiring Pace High School Principal Frank Lay and the school athletic director to answer criminal contempt charges that they violated an injunction banning faculty-led prayer.

The charges stem from Lay asking athletic director Robert Freeman to offer a blessing before a Jan. 28 luncheon at Pace High.

That was only nine days after U.S. District Judge Casey Rodgers issued a temporary injunction prohibiting Santa Rosa County School District officials from promoting, endorsing or leading religious prayers during school-sponsored events. The judge eventually made the order permanent.

Rodgers' decision to charge Lay and Freeman criminally means each faces possible jail time or fines if found in contempt.

They are scheduled to appear for trial before Rodgers on Sept. 17 at the federal courthouse in Pensacola. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Randy Hensel and Dixie Morrow are the prosecutors.

Additionally, Michelle Winkler, a School District clerk, faces a civil contempt charge initiated by the American Civil Liberties Union.

After school officials warned Winkler that she could not say a prayer at a Feb. 20 banquet, she unexpectedly asked her husband, a non-district employee, to offer the prayer. She is due in court Aug. 21.

Lay was one of several parties named in a lawsuit filed last August by the ACLU on behalf of two Pace High students against the Santa Rosa County School District. The students have not been publicly identified.

The lawsuit said Lay and other officials regularly promoted their personal religious beliefs to students.

"The conduct of Lay, if true, was even more concerning to the court than that of Winkler, given Lay's status as both a party to the lawsuit and principal of the high school involved in the lawsuit, as well as the fact he allegedly caused an employee under his command to violate the injunction," Rodgers wrote in a previous order.

The School District is not part of the contempt hearings, having successfully argued that Rodgers, Freeman and Winkler acted without authorization. The district issued letters of reprimand to all three.

Lay and Freeman are being represented by Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit, Orlando-based organization that represents people involved in religious freedom and anti-abortion activities, among other things.

Lay could not be reached for comment Monday. His attorney, Horatio Mihet, said Lay is concerned about the charge but hopeful he will be vindicated.

"He is sure that he has not violated the court's order, civilly or criminally and is looking forward to presenting his case before the court," Mihet said.

Freeman declined to comment.

Community together in prayer

Published on Sept. 11, 2009 in the Pensacola News Journal

It started with a prayer.

On a mild late-summer night, as the sun ducked beneath the pine trees of north Santa Rosa County, more than 500 people assembled in the rain-dampened lawn of the Farmers' Opry in rural Chumuckla.

They feasted on hamburgers and boiled peanuts. They listened to bluegrass and gospel music. They bowed their heads. They prayed.

They said "Amen."

What brought this group together is a federal court decision that has shaken the community's unwavering spiritual core and deep concern over the fate of two native sons.

Pace High School Principal Frank Lay and Athletic Director Robert Freeman are scheduled to appear before U.S. District Judge Casey Rodgers next Thursday on criminal contempt charges.

They could face either jail or fines if convicted of violating a federal court order directing Santa Rosa school employees to cease promoting religion in the schools.

In August 2008, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the School Board on behalf of two Pace High School students to stop the faculty and staff from their long-held practice of proselytizing to students.

Lay was among those who, on Jan. 19, signed a temporary injunction agreeing to stop the practice.

Nine days later, Lay asked Freeman to bless the food at a luncheon at Pace High for school personnel and booster club members instrumental in helping to get a new fieldhouse. Some students were present.

In August, some Santa Rosa residents established a legal defense fund for Lay and Freeman.

As of Wednesday, $42,577 had been raised, according to a defense fund Web site. More was to be tallied Thursday night from the $10 admission tickets and T-shirts sales at the Farmer's Opry event.

Lay and Freeman did not attend the event, during which several ministers spoke.

The Rev. Joey Rogers, pastor of Pace Assembly of God, took the stage to characterize the legal battle as one of David versus Goliath.

"This is a spiritual battle we're in for the very cause of freedom in this nation," Rogers said to the approval of the crowd. "I believe the voices of this community are being heard loud and strong. I believe it is the time to stand up like never before."

Challenging the law

Last year's lawsuit was the first direct legal challenge against something that, for many people in Santa Rosa, is as common as humidity in the summer or church on Sundays.

For many in attendance, the School District's decision to strike a deal with the ACLU unraveled the threads of a tapestry that has blanketed the community for decades. It took away something that they experienced in their time at Pace High and other area schools and took away something that they want for their own children.

Gaynell Rogers, 58, and her husband Vernon, 62, have lived in Pace for decades. She attended a public high school in Fort Walton Beach, and he attended Milton High School. Both said their school days started with prayer.

"They are changing our way of living," Gaynell Rogers said. "We believe in prayer in school, and it's not anybody's right to take that away from us."

Gene and Melva Davis, both 65, have lived in Pace for more than 40 years. Lay and Freeman taught their children and then grandchildren. They describe them both as "wonderful people" and say the status quo on school prayer is fine with them.

"This event is fantastic," Gene Davis said. "It's one I wish we didn't have to have. We don't need this persecution from the ACLU."

'Center of your life'

Angel Nowling, 30, went to Pace High School. Lay was her principal.

"It's tough. I know there are a lot of views, but I believe this has been taken to extreme measures," she said as her 3-year-old son Tucker tugged at her shirt. "People around here especially, there are a lot of religious people. For most Christians, that is the center of your life."

This is why, despite 50 years worth of court cases and U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the argument persists, said James Little, a law professor emeritus at the University of Florida.

"These are people who are deeply invested and deem this to be deeply important," he said in a telephone interview Thursday. "I think it's deeply important. Maybe each little skirmish is not, but the ongoing balance is."

Little said these battles bring together communities, like Pace, where residents believe their very way of life and their culture are threatened by outside forces.

"There is no question that decisions such as these and disputes such as these that change long-standing practices do forever change the character and the role of the school in the community," he said.

As he looked out among the crowd, the Rev. Ted Traylor of Olive Baptist Church offered a small prayer for the school employees who have come to personify the struggle. Lay is a member of Olive Baptist.

"I ask you, Lord, to give them boldness and give them courage," Traylor prayed. "Lord, I love these men. Lord, I have watched them hurt. Love, I've watched them done wrong."

The crowd responded: "Amen."

Prayer case heads to court

Published on Sept. 17, 2009 in the Pensacola News Journal

David Miller and Joseph King drove six hours from Crystal River to Pensacola on Wednesday to stand outside the federal courthouse and speak their minds.

"Acknowledging God is an unalienable right," said the sign held by Miller, a software engineer.

The pair plan to return today, along with hundreds of other expected protesters from here and neighboring states, for a criminal contempt hearing that's become the center of the ongoing national skirmish over prayer in schools.

U.S. District Judge Casey Rodgers is to decide whether Pace High School Principal Frank Lay and athletic director Robert Freeman defied her court order barring school officials from promoting prayer at school functions.

Rodgers filed the contempt charges against Lay and Freeman. If she rules against them, they could face fines or jail time.

The Pace pair are well-armed financially.

Robert Smith, a Milton insurance agent and a longtime friend of Lay, organized a legal-defense fund to help pay Lay's and Freeman's legal expenses. As of Tuesday, his Web site said they have raised $69,670.

The divisive issue arose after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the district and Lay on behalf of two students who complained about the decades-old practice of faculty- and staff-led prayer at Pace High School.

Rodgers issued a temporary injunction Jan. 19 ordering the district to discontinue the practice. The order preceded a permanent agreement between the School District and the ACLU.

Lay is accused of violating the temporary injunction by asking Freeman to bless the food at an athletic banquet where students were said to have been present.

The U.S. Attorney's Office and defense attorneys Barry Beroset and Horatio Mihet agreed to last-minute stipulations Wednesday afternoon that will keep a fiery speech Lay delivered at a students' rights rally in May from being played at today's hearing.

In the May 26 speech to 700 people at the Pace Assembly of God, Lay expressed outrage at new graduation guidelines that resulted from the consent decree prohibiting certain students from speaking at a graduation ceremony.

Speakers silenced

District officials did not allow any student whose election may have been influenced by school officials to speak because of concern that religion could enter into the student's selection. Speakers selected on a neutral basis because of their grade-point average - such as the valedictorian or salutatorian - were allowed to speak.

Hundreds of students and parents cheered as Lay blasted the ACLU and vowed to fight the prohibition against certain students speaking.

"No way are we going to back down, back off, lay down or roll over," he said. "I'm old. I don't want to fight, but I still have a few rounds left in me."

Both sides also agreed that the constitutionality of Rodgers' temporary injunction will not be up for debate, meaning today's proceeding will focus on whether Lay and Freeman violated the order.

District clerk Michelle Winkler prevailed at a civil contempt hearing last month.

She was accused of asking her husband to say a prayer at a faculty awards banquet after she was told that she could only offer a thought for the day.

Winkler, unlike Lay, was not a party to the original lawsuit.

Crowd likely

Smith, the legal defense fund's founder, said he already has confirmation that church groups from Meridian, Miss.; Birmingham and Fairhope, Ala.; Panama City and Bonifay will attend today's proceeding as protesters and spectators.

"From what I am gathering from the e-mails and the phone calls, there are going to be a lot of people here," he said.

Whatever Rodgers decides, it will force the School District to examine whether to censure Lay and Freeman.

Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick - a former student of Lay's - said the case falls into a realm that the district hasn't dealt with before.

"Our policies dictate treatment based on the level of the crime," Wyrosdick said. "Is it a misdemeanor or a felony? This kind of federal court action doesn't fit that.

"I think it will be appropriate to characterize that we will evaluate the situation for both individuals. We need to see what takes place with the court hearings and evaluate our situation then."

The Florida Department of Management Services will decide the fate of Lay and Freeman's pensions should the court rule against them.

Wyrosdick said the district has received a request from the department for information about Lay, Freeman and the case against them.

The Florida Department of Management Services will decide the fate of Lay and Freeman's pensions should the court rule against them.

Wyrosdick said the district has received a request from the department for information about Lay and Freeman and the case against them.

Management Services confirmed Wednesday that Lay does have a legal block on his retirement account and "forfeiture is possible."

Lay currently has $4,312 a month accumulating in his retirement account and stands to receive a payout of $286,734 in 2010, Management Services said.

Judge rules in prayer case

Published on Feb. 20, 2010 in the Pensacola News Journal

A federal judge has ruled that a group representing Christian educators cannot intervene in a settled prayer-in-schools lawsuit involving the Santa Rosa County School District.

Christian Educators Association International claimed the rights of district employees were violated in 2009 in a 22-page agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union to discontinue a long-standing practice of administration-promoted prayer at Pace High School.

In a 35-page ruling released Friday, U.S. District Judge Casey Rodgers said that Christian Educators "lacks standing to intervene because it has not demonstrated that the consent decree results in an objectively reasonable 'chill' on its members First Amendment rights. Alternatively, (Christian Educators') motion to intervene is untimely."

Christian Educators includes 11 employees in the School District.

The group had said the agreement - called a consent decree - created a "chilling effect" on its members' freedom of speech by limiting their ability to pray at school events when they aren't acting in an official capacity as educators and district employees.

Christian Educators attorneys from the conservative Christian legal group Liberty Counsel argued that while the personal religious rights of students were protected in the consent decree, the rights of teachers were not considered.

The judge disagreed.

"Contrary to (Christian Educators') assertion otherwise, the School Board adequately represented the interests of its employees by carefully drafting the consent decree to restrict only official-capacity speech or conduct," Rodgers wrote.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit in August 2008 on behalf of two Pace High students who complained about the long-standing practice of teachers and other faculty members leading prayer and promoting Christian religious practices on school property and at school-sanctioned events.

The suit named the district, then-Superintendent John Rogers and Pace Principal Frank Lay.

Activities that led to the original lawsuit included teacher-led Bible readings and prayer; school-approved prayers and invocations at graduation ceremonies; teachers assigning religiously oriented school work and a teacher preaching to students before school with a bullhorn.

It's a precedent in the United States that students reserve the right to assemble and pray individually, but that educators proselytizing is tantamount to state-sponsored religious activity.

In March, the district admitted wrongdoing, reached a settlement with the ACLU and promised that school officials would no longer take part in religious activities.

Benjamin Stevenson, general counsel for the ACLU in Northwest Florida, said Friday that he is pleased with the judge's ruling.

"The consent decree was clearly constitutional and designed to stop the practice of the School District advancing religious beliefs," Stevenson said. "Hopefully now the schools can focus on educating the students."

Teachers and faculty members represented by Christian Educators testified over the two days of hearings in December that they felt too afraid to offer a silent prayer in their own time, or limited in what they could say to students about religion in a historical context.

"The members' assertions of fear and self-censorship are based on a misunderstanding and an isolated reading of selected portions of the decree's definitions of 'prayer, school official and school event,' taken out of context, and further, at least as to some of the conduct the members wish to engage in, they have no arguable constitutionally protected right to engage in such conduct," the judge wrote.

Superintendent Tim Wryosdick testified that the School Board went to great lengths to educate faculty and staff regarding their rights and responsibilities under the decree.

Liberty Counsel founder and attorney Mathew Staver said Christian Educators plans to sue the Santa Rosa County School District to challenge the constitutionality of the agreement with the ACLU. It also plans to appeal Rodgers' ruling.

"I think the judge has just created nuclear war," Staver said. "We could have done this the easy way, to intervene, but now the only alternative is for us to file a direct federal action against the School District.

"The School District has done a complete disservice to its staff and students by allowing the ACLU to have an order this broad."

Liberty Counsel represented Lay and Athletic Director Robert Freeman, both of whom were vindicated on allegations that they violated the court's temporary injunction that was put into place after the ACLU and the district announced it reached an agreement.


Settlement reached in prayer suit

Published on July 2, 2011 in the Pensacola News Journal

The American Civil Liberties Union, the Santa Rosa County School District and conservative Christian legal group Liberty Counsel have reached an agreement that will alter a controversial consent decree that barred teacher-led prayer and religious activities within the district.

The proposed agreement was filed in federal court in Pensacola on Friday morning and awaits approval from the Santa Rosa School Board, which will take up the issue at a Tuesday meeting.

The agreement effectively ends more than three years of legal wrangling over perceived restrictions on free speech rights and religious expression.

"This brings peace to the School District," Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick said. "I see this as us being caught between two organizations that loathe each other (Liberty Counsel and the ACLU), and unfortunately our school district has been the battleground for this fight."

In 2009, U.S. District Judge Casey Rodgers signed an agreement between the district and the ACLU to stop teacher- and faculty-led religious activities at school events.

All appeals and pending lawsuits will be dropped as part of the agreement filed Friday, but the School District will have to pay Liberty Counsel $265,000 for legal fees.

This is in addition to the more than $340,000 in fees the district has incurred for its own attorneys and from its original agreement with the ACLU.

"The school district is essentially trying to put an end to this unnecessary controversy invented by the Liberty Counsel," ACLU attorney Benjamin Stevenson said. "They raised money on an invented issue and left with $265,000 in taxpayer money that would be better spent on taxpayers in the community."

The district's liability insurance will cover most of the cost of the legal fees associated with the cases.

The ACLU sued the district in 2008 on behalf of two Pace High students who objected to faculty- and staff-led prayer and religious activities. The district entered into a consent decree in January 2009 to end such practices.

Among the amendments to the original agreement is clarification of what does and doesn't constitute a "prayer."

"'Prayer' does not include customary, polite expressions and greetings, including 'God bless you' or 'thank heavens,' or a student's religious expression responsive to a legitimate academic class assignment," according to court documents.

Mathew Staver, director of the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel, said the amended agreement contains significant changes to what he believes was an overbearing agreement that didn't take into account the rights of teachers and district employees.

"The previous consent decree was drafted so that everything the staff and teachers did was considered in their official capacity, even when they were off campus," he said. "All of that has changed."

Wyrosdick said that the district needed to put the issue to rest to avoid continued costly legal action as the case neared its July 18 trial date.

"Reconciling this matter without having employees testifying against other employees is a step toward healing for us," he said. "We believe very clearly we would have won this trial."

Wyrosdick said he believed the original consent decree was a solid agreement. He doesn't believe the new agreement contains many significant changes, but it does bring some clarity to a complicated subject.

"The consent decree itself was inflammatory in the eyes of some employees because it restricted what they wanted to do," he said. "It's taken two and a half years of education to get people to understand we couldn't do what we were doing. (Liberty Counsel's) mission was to maintain status quo."

Under the agreement, a lawsuit brought last year by students, teachers and other school officials would be dropped. Also, an appeal filed in the original 2008 lawsuit by Liberty Counsel on behalf of an outside Christian educators group known as Christian Educators Association International will be dropped.