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By David Waters
A Florida high school principal should find out today if he will have to go to jail or pay a fine for asking his athletic director to say grace before a school luncheon in January.
(Update: Late Thursday, the judge ruled that principal Frank Lay did not violate
hisher court order. More below.)
It’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. Or maybe it is.
The case has incited the usual Government Vs. God rhetoric from the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Mike Huckabee, the Congressional Prayer Caucus and other culture warriors on the right. “This is a spiritual battle we’re in for the very cause of freedom in this nation,” Rev. Joey Rogers of Santa Rosa, Fla., declared.
Well, not quite. But the case does illustrate the mess we make when we confuse freedom of religion and freedom from religion.
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. She accused him of violating a court order not to promote his personal faith as a government official at a government function.
As the ACLU explained, “By directing, promoting, sponsoring, or otherwise endorsing prayer or religious activity, public schools infringe on the constitutional right of students, parents, teachers, and other staff to determine for themselves their religious beliefs and practices.”
Surely the principal and other leaders of a school that teaches civics and American history get that the same constitution that guarantees them freedom of religion also guarantees others (especially those they have power over) freedom from religion.
Surely they understand that they should remain neutral on religious matters while they are serving in their professional roles as public school officials and therefore as government representatives.
Surely they would be the first to complain if another principal asked another school official to bless a school meal in the name of Allah, or the Hindu goddess Annapurnu, or the Wiccan goddess of Demeter.
No one should go to jail for saying grace before a meal. But God isn’t hard of hearing. If public school officials or anyone else wants to say grace before meals at government-sponsored events, they have every right to do so — privately and silently, in their own heads and hearts.
I’ll update the post when today’s hearing is over. Meanwhile, what would you do if you were the judge in this case? What would you tell Principal Lay?
The Pensacola News Journal reported late Thursday that after a full day of testimony, Judge M. Case Rodgers said the prayer at a field house dedication during the school day that was held on church property was spontaneous, and there was seemingly no intent to violate the order. Lay could have faced up to six months in jail and $5,000 each in fines if the judge had ruled differently.