By Thaddeus M. Baklinski

PENSACOLA, Florida, August 18, 2009 ( – The principal of Pace High School, Frank Lay, and Athletic Director Robert Freeman are facing fines and imprisonment on criminal contempt charges after violating a court injunction that forbids prayers by administrators at school functions.

The criminal charges carry up to a $5,000 fine and a six-month jail term.

Earlier this year, Florida's Santa Rosa County School District was coerced into consenting to a court order prohibiting prayers during school-sponsored events after it decided not to further contest a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU suit was filed behalf of two unnamed students who claimed school officials violated the Constitution by promoting their religious beliefs in schools.

A temporary injunction was issued in January by US District Judge Casey Rodgers that “prohibits all district school officials from promoting, endorsing, or causing religious prayers during school-sponsored events.”

The case revolves around a luncheon held to dedicate a new sports facility where Mr. 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.

On January 28, “Lay asked Freeman to offer a prayer of blessing during a school-day luncheon for the dedication of a new fieldhouse at Pace High School,” according to court documents. “Freeman complied with the request and offered the prayer at the event. It appears this was a school-sponsored event attended by students, faculty and community members.”

Although there have been some reports that no students were present at the event, which was held on school property but after school hours, the ACLU contends that the incident occurred during school hours and that Mr. Lay has said in writing that students were present.

Mr. Lay said he was not intentionally trying to violate the court order, according to Santa Rosa's Press Gazette. “It is just something you are used to doing and as they say it is hard to teach an old dog new tricks.”

Pace High School, locally known as “the Baptist Academy”, has a long history of promoting a Christian ethos for its students, where prayers during sporting events and other activities were common. The Pace High School teachers' handbook asks teachers to “embrace every opportunity to inculcate, by precept and example, the practice of every Christian virtue.”

In June this year 400 graduating seniors at Pace High School stood up in protest against the ACLU instigated court order banning prayer and recited the Lord's Prayer during their graduation ceremony. Many of the students also painted crosses on their graduation caps to make a statement of faith.

Liberty Counsel, a Christian-based legal advocacy group, has filed a motion to intervene on behalf of Christian Educators Association International to challenge what it claims is an “overreaching” consent order. “The order unconstitutionally infringes on the rights of teachers, administrators, and students,” the non-profit litigation organization argues.

“I have been defending religious freedom issues for 22 years, and I've never had to defend somebody who has been charged criminally for praying,” said Mathew Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel.

However ACLU spokesman Glenn Katon said that Mr. Lay is not facing jail time for praying, but for violating a court order.

“We certainly never suggested that anyone go to jail,” Katon said in a CNN report. “We're just trying to make sure that school employees comply with the court order.”

“It is a sad day in America when school officials are criminally prosecuted for a prayer over a meal,” said Mathew Staver in a statement Monday. “It is outrageous and an offense to the First Amendment to punish a school official for a simple prayer.”

The trial date for Lay and Freeman is scheduled for Sept. 17.

See related LSN coverage:

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