A principal and an athletic director in Florida could be charged with crimes and spend six months in jail after they prayed before a meal at a school event, the Washington Times reported.
Pace High School Principal Frank Lay and athletic director Robert Freeman will go on trial in federal district court Sept. 17. They're accused of violating the conditions of a lawsuit settlement reached last year with the American Civil Liberties Union, according to the Times.
Local pastors and some students and teachers are outraged that Lay and Freeman face criminal charges, and they have protested during graduation ceremonies, the newspaper said.
"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, the Christian-based legal group that is defending the two school officials.
But an ACLU official said the Santa Rosa County School District has been guilty of "flagrant" First Amendment violations for years, the Times reported.
"The defendants all admitted wrongdoing," said Daniel Mach, ACLU's director of litigation for its freedom of religion program. "For example, the Pace High School teachers handbook asks teachers to 'embrace every opportunity to inculcate, by precept and example, the practice of every Christian virtue.'"
The case stems from a Jan. 28 incident in which Lay, a local Baptist church deacon, asked Freeman to offer mealtime prayers at a lunch for school employees. Staver said no students were there and the event took place on school property after hours.
Mach countered that the event was held during the school day and Lay has admitted in writing that there were students present, according to the newspaper.
The ACLU contends that the allowance of the lunchtime prayer was a breach of last year's settlement, in which the district promised, among other things, to prohibit all school employees from promoting prayers during school-sponsored events, espousing their religious beliefs and trying to convert students.