Florida woman will not be charged with contempt over prayer

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A federal district judge told Michelle Winkler, a Florida school district clerical assistant, that she would not be held in contempt regarding her husband's prayer at an awards banquet.

The decision stems from an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit filed last year in which the court entered an injunction barring school employees from praying at school activities.  Winkler's husband, who is not a school employee, read a prayer his wife had written at a privately funded event at a nearby Naval base.

The ACLU claimed the event in question was in connection with the public school.

Mathew D. Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, said it's an important step in protecting freedom of speech.

"We don't want to have to go to these contempt hearings," he said.  "We want to make sure that the students, faculty, staff and administrators understand and enjoy their First Amendment right to freedom of speech."

Liberty Counsel attorneys will be back in court Sept.17 to defend Principal Frank Lay and Athletic Director Robert Freeman, who are charged with criminal contempt for blessing a meal at a separate luncheon.

Principal Frank Lay and athletic director Robert Freeman of Pace High School may face jail time if a federal judge rules they violated a court order issued Jan. 9 that forbid employees from "promoting, advancing, aiding, facilitating, endorsing, or causing religious prayers or devotionals during school sponsored events."

Charges were filed against Lay and Freeman after Lay, who is in his 20th year as the school's principal, asked Freeman to offer a prayer before the meal at a Jan. 29 luncheon in the school's field house honoring boosters and other adults.

"I did it primarily out of habit. It's just something we've always done," Lay said. "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."

The school district, Staver said, complied with the ACLU's recommendations and consented to the entry of an order by the court which, among other things, essentially bans employees from engaging in prayer or religious activities before, during or after school hours.

In protest of the new policy, many Pace High School seniors recited the Lord's Prayer and wore crosses on their caps at their May 30 graduation ceremony. Many in the packed stands joined the students and applauded afterward.

The difference between this ruling and others the court has handed down concerning when and where students or employees may gather for religious activities or pray, is that it does not set standards, but instead addresses all employees, at all school-related functions, at all times. It does not allow for club sponsorships, parent and child relationships, or simply someone who wants to "bow their head in respect" when others are praying, Staver said.

EP


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