How To Violate a Court Order and Win Congressional Support

For the last several weeks, the Liberty Counsel has been busy turning Florida Principal Frank Lay and Athletic Director Robert Freeman into a Religious Right heroes and martyrs in anticipation of their upcoming court date.  The right-wing narrative is that Lay and Freeman are being persecuted for exercising their First Amendment rights and sharing their Christian faith, and now LC has gotten more than 60 members of Congress to sign on to a letter in support of the two men as they head into court today:

Tomorrow, Liberty Counsel will be in federal District Court in Pensacola representing the Principal of Pace High School, Frank Lay and Athletic Director Robert Freeman as they face criminal contempt charges for a prayer over a meal. Ironically, tomorrow is National Constitution Day.

During a luncheon to honor those who contributed toward the school’s athletic Field House, Principal Lay asked Mr. Freeman to offer a blessing for the meal. Students were not present at the time of the blessing. Lay and Freeman thought nothing of the matter nor did those being honored. But the ACLU ran to court, claiming both men should be held in criminal contempt. Lay and Freeman have a combined 70 years of public school service. If convicted, they face up to $5,000 in fines, six months in jail, and they may lose their retirement benefits.

Yesterday, Cong. Randy Forbes, the Chair of the bipartisan Congressional Prayer Caucus, Cong. Mike McIntyre, Co-Chair, and Cong. Jeff Taylor, whose district includes Santa Rosa County, along with over 61 members of the Caucus, sent a letter of support [PDF] to Lay, Freeman and Winkler. The letter states the members “are standing with you in prayer and support as you face your trial on Thursday because of offering a prayer.” Members of Congress voted to authorize a Chaplain to offer a prayer at the first session of Congress. The letter concludes: “The tradition of offering prayer in America has become so interwoven into our nation’s spiritual heritage, that to charge someone criminally for engaging in such an innocent practice would astonish the men who founded this country on religious freedom.” Last night members of Congress, including Cong. Forbes and Cong. Jeff Miller, made speeches on the House floor in support of Lay, Freeman, and Winkler, while pointing out the sad irony that they are being tried on National Constitution Day.

If you just read the right-wing spin on this, you’d think that Lay and Freeman were just a couple of innocent victims of the never-ending “war on Christians.”  Of course, there is more to the story, as David Waters explains:

It seems that Principal Frank Lay has been trying to use his freedom of religion to turn Pace High School into a sort of Sunday school. According to court documents, the Pace High Teacher Handbook required school personnel to “embrace every opportunity to inculcate, by precept and example, the practice of every Christian virtue.” School and district officials “often led or directed students in prayer at extracurricular and athletic events, arranged for prayer during graduation ceremonies, proselytized students during and outside of class, and sponsored religious baccalaureate services. One teacher displayed a waist-high white cross in her classroom.”

Pace hasn’t tried to hide his evangelical tendencies. “This country is founded on Judeo-Christian principles, there is no doubt about that,” he told a congregation last year. “I walk up and down the halls everyday and I see tons of kids that aren’t saved. They have hollow eyes. They are void of a spirit. They need Jesus.”

Last year, the ACLU represented two students who filed suit against the school board, claiming that school officials were violating their freedom from religion. Lay and district officials admitted liability. Last January, the federal judge ordered Lay and district officials to stop promoting, advancing, aiding, facilitating, endorsing, or causing religious prayers or devotionals during school-sponsored events.”

Nine days later, Principal Lay asked athletic director Robert Freeman to lead a prayer at the beginning of a luncheon at Pace High School. “I did it primarily out of habit. It’s just something we’ve always done,” Lay told the Florida Baptist Witness. “I have been painted here as somewhat of a rebel. I don’t consider myself that, nor do I want to be. I am a Christian. I am not ashamed of my faith.”

Unfortunately for Lay, the federal judge didn’t accuse him of being ashamed of his faith. He accused him of violating a court order not to promote his personal faith as a government official at a government function.

Lay and school officials admitted that they had been improperly using school functions to proselytize and agreed to stop doing so … and then, nine days later, did it again, so now they are facing contempt charges for violating the court order.

That is a little different than the right-wing claim that they are being charged for merely “engaging in such an innocent practice” as praying before a meal.

UPDATE: Lay and Freeman were found not guilty.