- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 17, 2009

Two Florida school officials facing possible jail terms for praying in the presence of students arrive in court Thursday enjoying the support of more than 60 members of Congress.

Some of those members, who signed a letter of support and sent it to the two school officials Monday, took to the House floor Tuesday night to denounce what they called a “criminalization of prayer” that “tramples on the First Amendment rights” of Christians.

“The Founding Fathers would be appalled” at the trial of Pace High School Principal Frank Lay and his school athletic director, Robert Freeman, said Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida. His Pensacola-based district includes Santa Rosa County, where the lawsuit is based.

The 9 a.m. trial “is one of the first times we’ve literally had the potential for the criminalization of prayer in the United States of America,” said Rep. J. Randy Forbes of Virginia, chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus.

If the two men are found guilty, “there will come a day,” Mr. Forbes predicted, “when the speaker of this house will be hauled into federal court and threatened with jail because she dares to stand at that podium where you stand tonight and ask the chaplain to start our day with the prayer.”

Mr. Forbes, Mr. Miller and Rep. Mike McIntyre, North Carolina Democrat, were signatories to the Monday letter to the two educators, assuring them that “we are standing with you in prayer and support as you face your trial.” More than 60 members of the House have co-signed.

The two educators are being tried in federal district court in Pensacola for breaching the conditions of a lawsuit settlement reached last year with the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU sued Santa Rosa County School District a year ago on behalf of two students who claimed that some teachers and administrators were allowing prayers at school events, orchestrating separate religiously themed graduation services and proselytizing students during class and after school.

In January, the school district settled out of court with the ACLU, agreeing to several conditions, including the barring of all school employees from promoting or sponsoring prayers during school-sponsored events.

The ACLU complained to U.S. District Judge Margaret C. “Casey” Rodgers after Mr. Lay asked Mr. Freeman to offer mealtime prayers at a Jan. 28 lunch for school employees and booster-club members who had helped with a school field-house project. The judge then issued a contempt order for the two men.

Mr. Miller criticized the order, saying, “a federal judge has gone well outside the bounds of the Constitution to declare that prayer offered among adults is illegal.” There was “zero student participation” at the event, he said. “That the court would somehow consider this action to be criminal behavior is simply unconscionable.”

The judge’s injunction “tramples upon the First Amendment rights of a specific group of people,” Mr. Miller added, “denying them the equal protection that is provided under the very Constitution that we believe in.”

The contempt order had also included Michelle Winkler, a clerical assistant who asked her husband, who is not a school employee, to bless an evening meal at a private event in February at a nearby naval base with other school employees. After a 7 1/2-hour trial Aug. 21, the judge removed Mrs. Winkler’s name from the order.

Susan Watson, the Northwest regional director for the ACLU’s Florida affiliate, said she had not seen the letter from the House members, so she had no comment. Glenn Katon, director of the Florida ACLU’s religious freedom project, called the letter “political grandstanding.”

Mathew Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, the Orlando-based legal group that is defending the two school officials, posted the letter on the group’s Web site at www.lc.org, noting that Thursday is national Constitution Day. He said he expects the judge to rule within a few hours.

• Julia Duin can be reached at jduin@washingtontimes.com.

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