PENSACOLA, Fla. — A federal judge in Florida ruled Sept. 17
that a blessing at an athletic banquet did not violate her court order telling
a school district’s leaders to refrain from promoting religious activity at
Following a day-long hearing, U.S. District Judge Casey
Rodgers acquitted Pace High School Principal Frank Lay and Athletic Director
Robert Freeman of criminal contempt of court. If convicted, the two men could
have faced up to $5,000 in fines and six months in jail.
In January Rodgers ordered school officials of the Santa
Rosa County, Fla., school to discontinue practices promoting prayer at
school-sponsored events, including commencement exercises; planning or
financing religious baccalaureate services; promoting religious beliefs to
students in class or during school-sponsored events and activities and holding
school-sponsored events at churches.
The injunction stemmed from a lawsuit filed in August 2008
on behalf of two Pace students by the American Civil Liberties Union. It
accused school officials, including Lay and school-board members, of using
their governmental positions to promote their personal religious beliefs in
public schools in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
Nine days after Rodgers’ injunction, Frank asked Freeman to
lead a blessing of the food at a banquet honoring people who contributed to the
school’s new athletic fieldhouse. The ACLU alerted the judge, and she ordered
the two men to face criminal contempt proceedings.
The case is the latest battleground in the culture war over
school prayer. In June about 400 seniors at Pace High School stood up in protest
of the ACLU at their graduation ceremony and recited the Lord’s Prayer. In May
during a Sunday-night service at Olive Baptist Church in nearby Pensacola,
where he is a member and deacon, proclaiming that America was founded on
Judeo-Christian principles and saying that every day he walks school hallways
and sees kids who “need Jesus.”
During their Sept. 17 hearing, however, both Lay and Freeman
testified that they had merely acted out of habit in invoking God’s blessing at
the athletic banquet. After the hearing Rodgers ruled the two did not
intentionally violate her temporary injunction banning school prayer.
Afterward, Lay spoke to about 1,000 supporters who held
vigil outside the courthouse throughout the rainy day. “Above all I want to
thank chief counsel, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit,” Lay
told the cheering crowd, according
to the Pensacola News-Journal.
ACLU attorney Benjamin Stevenson told the newspaper that
despite the ruling in Lay and Freeman’s favor, Judge Rodgers made it clear that
“the unconstitutional promoting of religion by public school officials will not
The lawsuit filed by the ACLU alleged a repeated pattern by
school officials of “promoting and endorsing prayers at graduation ceremonies
and other school events, of sponsoring religious ceremonies and holding
official school events at churches.”
A Pace High employee handbook introduced
as evidence said all school personnel are expected to “embrace every
opportunity to inculcate, by precept and example, the principles of truth,
honesty and patriotism and the practice of every Christian virtue.”
“Parents, not the public schools, should be responsible for
deciding whether their children receive religious education,” Benjamin
Stevenson, staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida’s Northwest Region office,
said in a press release.
“Religious freedom is eroded when the government endorses any particular
A supporter of Lay and Freeman, Ted Traylor,
pastor of Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, said
the goal of the ACLU was to create a Jesus-free zone on public-school campuses.
Traylor, a former president of the Florida Baptist Convention and first vice
president of the Southern Baptist Convention, helped
raise money for a defense fund
for the two men, which totaled nearly $70,000.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Allen is senior writer for Associated