Two rural northern Florida school officials were found not guilty of violating an injunction against praying in school, a Florida judge ruled late Thursday in a contentious school prayer case that spurred a reaction from Congress earlier this week.
Hundreds of people waiting in the rain outside of a federal courthouse in Pensacola cheered just after 7:30 p.m. when U.S. District Judge Margaret C. “Casey” Rodgers ruled that Frank Lay, principal of Pace High School in Santa Rosa County, and his athletic director, Robert Freeman, didn’t intentionally violate her order to not offer prayers at school-sponsored gatherings.
“We’re very pleased,” said Mathew Staver, spokesman for the Liberty Counsel, the Orlando-based legal group that represented the two men. “We’ll now focus on getting the underlying order set aside or overturned by a higher court.”
Glenn Katon, director of the Florida American Civil Liberty Union’s religious freedom project, said the judge “made an honest evaluation of the facts and applied the law.”
“I respect her ruling just as I hope school officials will respect her order prohibiting them from promoting their personal religious beliefs in the classroom and at school events,” he added.
More than 60 members of Congress signed a letter Monday in support of the two school officials. Reps. Jeff Miller of Florida and J. Randy Forbes of Virginia, both Republicans, gave speeches Tuesday night on the floor of the House castigating the reasons for the case. Mr. Forbes said it had “the potential for the criminalization of prayer in the United States of America.”
The ACLU sued the Santa Rosa County School District a year ago on behalf of two students who said 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 Judge 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.
When asked Thursday why he agreed to give the prayer, “It was just out of reflex,” Mr. Freeman told the judge, according to the Pensacola News-Journal. His testimony was part of a 10-hour hearing involving several witnesses.
An estimated 1,000 demonstrators apparently including numerous Pace High School students and teachers were in the streets of downtown Pensacola throughout the day in support of the two men. Crowds began gathering at the federal courthouse at dawn. Some sang hymns such as “Amazing Grace;” others held signs criticizing the ACLU.
Had the men been found guilty, they faced up to six months in jail, a possible loss of their retirement benefits and $5,000 each in fines.