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Florida school officials in prayer case could get jail time

  • Story Highlights
  • Two Florida school administrators accused of violating consent order on prayer
  • If convicted, two could be sentenced to up to six months in prison and fined
  • ACLU sued district on behalf of students who alleged prayer held at school events
  • Parties agreed to consent decree in January; ACLU not part of criminal proceedings
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(CNN) -- Two Florida school administrators were due to appear in federal court Thursday to face contempt charges for saying a prayer at a school luncheon.

Rep. Mike McIntyre is one of three members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus backing the school officials.

Rep. Mike McIntyre is one of three members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus backing the school officials.

Frank Lay, principal of Pace High School in Pace, Florida, and school athletic director Robert Freeman are accused of violating a consent decree banning employees of Santa Rosa County schools from endorsing religion.

They face a nonjury trial before U.S. District Judge M.C. Rodgers. If convicted, they could be sentenced to up to six months in prison and fined, subject to sentencing guidelines.

Defense attorneys have said it is it outrageous Lay and Freeman are facing prosecution for "a simple prayer." But the American Civil Liberties Union, whose lawsuit led to the consent decree, maintains students have a right to be free from administrators who foist their personal religious beliefs on them.

However, an ACLU representative said the organization "never suggested" people should go to jail for violating the decree, and the organization is not involved in the criminal proceedings.

The ACLU filed suit last year against the school district in northwest Florida on behalf of two Pace students who alleged that "officials regularly promoted religion and led prayers at school events," according to an ACLU statement.

Both parties approved the consent decree put in place January 9 under which district and school officials are "permanently prohibited from promoting, advancing, endorsing, participating in or causing prayers during or in conjunction with school events," the ACLU said.

Lay was a party in the initial lawsuit, and his attorney was among those approving the consent decree, according to the organization. In addition, the court required that all district employees receive a copy.

But on January 28, "Lay asked Freeman to offer a prayer of blessing during a school-day luncheon for the dedication of a new field house 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."

Attorneys from Liberty Counsel, a conservative legal group helping defend Lay and Freeman, have said that attendees included booster club members and other adults who helped the field house project -- all "consenting adults."

Three U.S. lawmakers who are members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus have written a letter in support of the two school administrators, saying that "many of America's Founding Fathers were resolute in their faiths, and the impact of such is evident in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and many of their writings."

The letter from Reps. J. Randy Forbes, R-Virginia; Mike McIntyre, D-North Carolina; and Jeff Miller, R-Florida, said the congressmen were writing as members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus.

"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 a practice would astonish the men who founded this country on religious liberty," the lawmakers wrote.

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