By Thaddeus M. Baklinski

PENSACOLA, Florida, September 17, 2009 ( – Liberty Counsel, a Christian-based legal advocacy group, is in federal District Court today defending Pace High School Principal Frank Lay and Athletic Director Robert Freeman on charges of criminal contempt over a blessing of the meal at a luncheon to honor private contributors to the school's athletic program.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against the teachers after it learned that Principal Lay asked Mr. Freeman to say a prayer over the food in the presence of school employees and people who had helped with the school project. The ACLU claims Lay and Freeman violated a court injunction that forbids prayers by administrators at school functions.

If convicted, Lay and Freeman face up to $5,000 in fines, six months in jail, and the possible loss of their retirement benefits.

Late last month, a similar charge against Michelle Winkler, a clerical assistant in the same school district, was dropped when federal District Judge Casey Rodgers ruled against the charge of contempt brought forward by the ACLU.

Winkler was charged with civil contempt of the court injunction banning prayer when she invited her husband, who is not employed by the school, to read a prayer blessing she wrote for the honorees at a privately funded event to honor non-instructional employees of the school district.

Lay and Freeman have received a letter of support from Congressman Randy Forbes, Chairman of the bipartisan Congressional Prayer Caucus, who, with Congressman Mike McIntyre, Co-Chair, Congressman Jeff Miller, whose district includes Santa Rosa County, and 58 members of the Caucus, condemns the attempt to criminalize prayer in America.

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,” and concludes that the country's founders would be astonished at someone being criminally charged for praying.

“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 liberty.”

Commenting on the court case against the school employees, Congressman Forbes said in a press release: “This week the small school district of Santa Rosa County, Florida has captured the attention of at least 30 Members of Congress – not because of any political opportunity or hidden agenda. It is because this case signifies an effort to criminalize prayer in America.

“Today it is school employees in Santa Rosa County. Tomorrow it could be your child's high school coach, your school's athletic sponsors, or your spouse. If we do not stand up today for our religious liberties and the right of all Americans to pray according to their faith, our children and grandchildren will have no foundation left on which to pray,” said Forbes.

Mathew D. Staver, Founder of Liberty Counsel and Dean of Liberty University School of Law, commented on the irony of a court challenge to public prayer being heard on the day the US celebrates its constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms, National Constitution Day.

“While we celebrate our enduring Constitution, we are reminded that liberty is always a generation away from extinction. Liberty is not inherited and is not transmitted in our DNA. Liberty must be secured by each generation.

“What a sad state of affairs, when on the day we celebrate the oldest and most enduring Constitution in the world, that honorable public servants are tried as criminals for praying over a meal. This may be the America the ACLU seeks, but it is not the America Liberty Counsel knows, nor is it the America the Founders envisioned.”

Read previous LSN coverage:

Florida High School Officials Face Criminal Charges Over Luncheon Prayer 

School Official Cleared of Contempt Charge in Prayer Case 

400 Students Defy ACLU and Stand to Recite Lord's Prayer at Graduation