Florida Principal Faces Prison Time for Luncheon Prayer August 20, 2009

Florida Principal Faces Prison Time for Luncheon Prayer

Last year, a school administrator at a public high school in Florida said a prayer at a school luncheon at the request of another administrator. That’s illegal to say the least, since children were present, and school officials should not be using their positions of authority to promote a particular faith.

Apparently, that wasn’t the only time that happened, either.

The ACLU filed suit last year against the district on behalf of two [Pace High School] students who alleged that “school 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.

[Principal Frank] 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.

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.”

Principal Lay had already been warned against doing such thing:

In a February 4 letter to district Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick in which Lay acknowledged the incident, he said that although past football booster club members “and other adults associated with the school system” were at the luncheon, culinary class students were in charge of food preparation and serving.

Lay wrote that he asked Freeman to bless the food “for the adults. … I take full responsibility for this action. My actions were overt and not meant to circumvent any court order or constitutional mandate.”

In response, Wyrosdick noted in a letter to Lay that in a meeting, the principal had admitted that “you are, and were at the date of this incident, aware of the court injunction and aware that this type of action is not permissible under the injunction.”

Wyrosdick recounted telling Lay that the prayer was not appropriate.

I almost felt sorry for Lay… was he really deserving of a prison sentence and a $5,000 fine? It sounded harsh. But then I read this from the Portland Humanist Examiner:

Pace High School, located in Florida’s Santa Rosa County School District, is a school of more than 1,800 students. Pace is known by many as “the Baptist Academy.” For years, teachers and staff delivered prayers, mandated students complete religious-oriented assignments and encouraged involvement in religious clubs. Teachers offered Bible readings or biblical interpretations and talked about the churches they attended. Christian prayers during sporting events and other activities were common. All this was encouraged and endorsed by Principal Frank Lay.

Principal Lay was warned repeatedly. He signed a document giving his word he would not engage in such activity only a week prior. Yet he violated the court order; he demonstrated that he was not a man of his word – his signature, his bond, his guarantee – meant nothing.

It would send a positive message to the kids if he served some jail time. No one is above the law. Those who break the law should be punished.

Forget jail. This man should simply be out of a job. There are plenty of administrators out there who can respect the law when it comes to church/state separation.

(Thanks to Jonna for the link!)

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  • TJ


    Maybe the possibility of jail time will make them keep their mouths shut and keep their dogma out of the vulnerable minds of children. I, for one, support this. I think it’s a form of child abuse.

    I hope he has fun proselytizing to the prison inmates.

  • It’s tough, because normally this wouldn’t make me think he deserves jail time, or a big fine. Usually, you’d think a stern telling off would do.

    However, promising to a judge the week before makes it stand out that this guy has a problem. I’m presuming he’s fallen foul of a contempt of court by breaking his word?

    I wonder if he’ll keep his job? It sounds like he ran the school to his rules rather than the country’s rules. It sounds like he was given a “get of lightly” chance when he did his promise not to do it again.

  • This guy probably should have been fired a long time ago. Let him find a job at a private Christian school. But throwing him in jail is ridiculous.

  • Ned

    This is why Florida gets its own tag on Fark.com.

  • Sounds like the jail time is for violating a court order, not just for a single lunchtime prayer. He’d been slapped with the court order for some pretty egregious endorsements of religion already, and then just couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

    If there hadn’t been a court order, I’d agree that jail time is excessive, but in this case it seems reasonable.

  • Skunque

    Agreed with the other posters. Forget about the jail time. Fire him already, that should’ve been the first line of defense. It’s embarassing that it wasn’t exercised long before court orders or signed promises were required. Thus, also fire whomever his line manager is, for not terminating him when he had already willingly flouted the rules.

  • Richard

    I think “arrested for praying” is somewhat inaccurate. He was arrested for breaking a promise to a federal judge.

    The first framing just plays into the hands of the religious nutjobs.

  • @Ned: Exactly.

    Having said that, this guy, what a ‘tard. He challenged the ruling simply because he didn’t think they’d actually call him on it. I’m glad they did. Lock the sumbitch up.

  • Jail time is entirely appropriate for contempt. This was an act of civil disobedience to test the power of the court. If he has the courage of his convictions that this was the right thing to do based on his own flawed interpretation of the free exercise clause, and if he “take(s) full responsibility” for his actions then I see no reason why he should be given a pass on this.

    Who cares if the right want to use it as a persecution frame? They’ll do it no matter what his sanctions might have been, and the rule of law should apply.

    If people get thrown in jail for contempt when they are unable to pay child support, then someone who was able to comply with a consent decree but chose not to should not be exempted just because we are afraid of how the RR will use it.

    Even if he were just fired and the court left it at that he would make big money on the talk circuit in mega-churches for being a religious hero.

    He needs to cowboy up and go to jail for this if this is what he believes in.

  • medussa

    This sense of entitlement that many christians display, especially those who are mentioned on this site, is astonishing. They flagrantly break rules, break their word, contradict themselves, lie, defraud, betray the trust of those around them, back stab, treat others rudely, etc, all in the name of their god. Bus drivers, Illinois parents, a school principle, all in the last 2 days alone.

    If I were to behave that way, they’d be foaming at the mouth to be the first to accuse me of being an immoral atheist, regardless of whether or not my beliefs (or lack thereof) had anything to do with my rude behavior.
    Aside from that, my mom would slap me, and my grandmother (a devout christian) would give me a whooping for embarrassing her by displaying poor manners.

    What is wrong with these people? I know they are poisoned by their belief system, but were they not raised to behave respectfully towards others? To be polite? To behave morally? And why aren’t their parents stepping in, telling them they’re ashamed of their poor behavior? Their pastors, to tell them that being rude and disrespectful is not acceptable?

    If I were a christian, and really wanted more people to follow my faith, I think I’d concentrate on curbing the excessively disrespectful behavior of my fellow christians, so they’d stop giving christianity a bad name.

    Then again, it’s hard to say what I’d do if I were a christian, I’ve never been one…

  • Richard’s point is exactly right. He isn’t being punished this way for praying in school. He’s being punished for repeatedly violating a court order. He is therefore not a martyr. If he disagrees with the court’s order, he had the ability to not stipulate to it in the first place, or if it was imposed on him without his stipulation, he had the ability to appeal from it.

    I’m not sure the Court has the ability to order the man fired, though. The School District can do that but a job is a “property interest” not implicated by his wrongful conduct. If they have not already done so, the plaintiffs in the case need to join the school district that employs the principal and demand that a policy be created by which any employee who violates the Establishment Clause is subject to progressive discipline.

  • The guy is probably welcoming this – now he gets to be “persecuted for his faith” and brag about it at his church. “Everyone look at me, I’m a martyr for my faith!”

  • Hemant,
    I agree. Losing his job is a much more fitting punishment than years in prison.

  • I would like to address this as a local and as a “religious nut.” Not all those of faith support Frank Lay in his decision to snub the consent decree. Are there a bunch who do? absolutely, but not all. In fact, he has been placed on administrative leave until the court determines whether he is innocent or guilty in this matter. So for all those calling for him to be fired, its premature at this point to fire him over this particular incident as his guilt or innocence has yet to be determined by the court.

    It is a topic that still has a lot of discussion in the local community stirred up; mainly about what can school employees still do in regard to religious expression. I personally support the consent decree because I am Christian and right now there is a Christian principal, but what about in 5 years? What if there is a Muslim principal at that time? I know I don’t want him leading prayers and requiring student participation by Christian students.

    I want everyone to be free to practice their religion, but I also understand the purpose of these rules.

  • Infinitemonkey

    I personally think this amounts to contempt of court. Maybe a week in jail, and a nice fine, but the extent is a little excessive.

    The sad part is on the aol poll, most people think the prayer was ok. If I’m attending a place-by law-then I shouldn’t be submitted to prayer or anything along that line.

  • Yeah, losing his job is the most fitting punishment. Let him go find work outside of the public sector, remove him from a position where he can push his views on the public dime. Throwing him in jail just seems punitive.

  • Richard

    The reason this is more than contempt of court is because he violated a consent decree.

    That makes it much worse (in my opinion) than violating an injunction.

    An injunction is a judge saying, “With my judicial authority, I order you to stop doing X.”

    A consent decree is an agreement between the two parties in a lawsuit. It says, basically, “You’re suing me because of X. If you’ll drop the suit, I’ll promise to stop doing X.”

    The huge difference is that a consent decree is a voluntary agreement signed by both parties.

    If it were, “a judge ordered him to stop praying!” then he could claim that this was civil disobedience. We’d compare the merits of the disobedience to the logic behind the order.

    But, as is, it’s simply fraud. He got something he wanted by making a promise he had no intent of keeping.

    As far as saying, ‘arrested for praying’, I still think it’s fundamentally inaccurate.

    It’s like saying that I was ‘arrested for writing’ when I’d been caught at check fraud.

  • ethanol

    If he does serve jail time, he will also serve as the ultimate martyr for “persecuted” christians. This will be viewed entirely in relation to his prayer, not his contempt of court. For those who have been predicting that any day now they will be thrown in prison for praying (Pat Robinson, Glenn Beck and the like) such news would only serve as validation. I think the better solution is to fire him. It will still look bad to some, but it helps reinforce that this is a problem related to his job performance, and not a arbitrary punishment of religious devotion.

  • So, he’s not going to jail for praying, but for breaking a promise. You can just see how Fox will spin this…

  • The Other Tom

    Hemant, I beg you to be more careful with your language. Your headline on this article screams for fundamentalists to come along and use it as “proof” to their sheep that we’re trying to outlaw prayer. It’s also just plain incorrect. A more truthful headline would be “Florida principal faces prison time for violating federal court order.” He can pray at as many luncheons as he likes.

  • Aly

    I live in Pensacola, and a friend of mine who goes to Pace High complained about this ACLU business on Facebook. She argued that the ACLU should have stayed out of the matter, and that the suit was hurting the school. And I’m currently in an argument with a non-believer friend of mine who also believes prayer in school is OK.

    I don’t understand people who say that. Maybe they’ve never been an outsider in terms of religion. It’s hard if your teachers are talking about god but you know that the god they’re talking about would send you to hell for believing in your own god. (I imagine. I’ve never been preached at in public schools—but have been in private situations.)

    It’s easier as an atheist, IMO, but it’s still uncomfortable. And it’s also unconstitutional.

    I am so moving away from here when I go to college.

  • Richard Wade

    Lay is getting exactly what he deserves. I’m sure the federal judge did not make this decision lightly. Lay repeatedly wagged his third digit in the face of the judge and the law, essentially saying “I dare you.” He had ample warning, but the prospect of losing his job or being fined and jailed did not stop him. There are plenty of other rogue principals and teachers who think that their religion gives them immunity from the law and trumps their professional ethics. This will get their attention where merely firing Lay would not.

    Holding back well-earned punishment for fear of making someone a martyr is giving into blackmail. It is a short-term avoidance of a problem that will only get bigger. When someone defies the law thinking that nobody will dare punish him, then he and his cohorts come to take it for granted, and abuse the law even more. People have been getting away with this for a long time under the ridiculous special status that our society affords religion, and these increasingly brazen violations are the result. Unless you want even worse, we must stand up to it firmly.

    Any Christians who will whine about Lay being “persecuted” are the same ones who say “Break the law, go to jail” when it comes to any other crime. Since they don’t have the courage of their convictions when it comes to taking responsibility for the laws that protect us all, Then the rest of us must show that courage, and see to it that the law is applied to everyone.

  • You should be here to experience the idiocy of it all. I am in Pensacola (hi Aly!) and the xians are all worked up. First Kent Hovind and now Principle Lay. One of the local churches had a prayer session one weekend at the school.

  • me

    if public schools are ultimately run by the gov, couldnt some county official, or governer-type just dismiss him? if you work for the govt, part of your job description is adhearing to the constitution. seems he broke his contract.

    …yeah, get him on treason! woo!

  • Tizzle

    I don’t say ‘break the law go to jail’, Richard. I say we should keep people out of jail for most non-violent offenses.

    Jail, even for violating the order/agreement he signed, seems a bit excessive to me. Just raise the fine until it hurts.

    I used to be a Christian, and the persecution complex really bugs me. But it fills seats and coffers and lets people feel smug when nothing else in life is going well.

  • Talley

    If there’s one thing I’ve learned about our court system, it’s that you don’t piss off a judge, or you’ll be in a world of hurt. Blatantly ignoring an injunction is like a slap in the face to a judge.

    That guy called down the thunder, and though I don’t agree with the punishment, he has to reap the whirlwind.

  • Richard Wade


    I don’t say ‘break the law go to jail’, Richard. I say we should keep people out of jail for most non-violent offenses.

    Jail, even for violating the order/agreement he signed, seems a bit excessive to me. Just raise the fine until it hurts.

    I understand what you’re saying, Tizzle, but just raising Lay’s fine won’t hurt him at all. Churches in the area will easily raise the money on his behalf. The judge would have to raise the fine to several hundred thousand dollars before the churches started hurting, and then, unable to pay, Lay would be in jail anyway. He won’t stop breaking the law and his ethical agreements until he actually suffers personally. The punishment is not unduly harsh when he has clearly demonstrated that nothing less will get his attention.

    As far as this issue getting exposure to public opinion, let the poop hit the propeller! We need a national debate about religionists thinking that they are above the law and above keeping their agreements. We even have Congressmen and Senators who think that their religion gives them permission to cheat, lie, steal, and defile the Constitution because they answer to a higher authority. Teachers, principals and politicians are given a public trust by the people, and their god does not give them a license to betray that trust. Only the people will be there to protect themselves from that betrayal. God won’t be available for comment.

  • Alan E.

    Check out the website for the defense of these guys:


  • Forget jail. This man should simply be out of a job.

    No. This man should be in jail. When you frequently and flagrantly violate the law, despite having signed documents and agreed to court orders saying that you won’t, in a way that affects hundreds and indeed thousands of people… jail is exactly what should happen. If the worst thing that happens to people who do this is that they get fired, what’s the deterrent for others who try to do the same thing?

    Not usually such a law- and- order hardass… but this is grotesque.

  • Richard

    A judge shouldn’t let this slide, for reasons that have nothing to do with prayer.

    The guy violated a consent decree. If consent decrees aren’t upheld consistently, they become effectively unavailable.

    If consent decrees aren’t available, there’s much less opportunity for out of court settlements.

    If we can’t settle things out of court, then lawsuits get longer and more wasteful. They eat up court time and the legal process starts to break down.

    So, from my perspective, it’s really not important that he prayed. It’s important that he’s screwed with the integrity of the judicial system.

  • Ron in Houston

    From a PR/Spin perspective, the push back needs to be that no one is being punished for saying a prayer. As Richard pointed out, this is simply not the case.

    What they are being punished for now is for violating the consent decree they signed.

    Is it really too much to ask of people who claim such high morality from their religion to tell the truth?

  • Jim

    This stuff needs to stop. I’d be more than willing to fund, as a taxpayer, an oversight committee whose responsibility was to investigate every public school in America to ensure that this type of crap isn’t happening. I’m sure that everyone reading this knows that this school in Florida is likely one out of thousands that get away with it but are never reported.

  • Dan W

    “Pace is known by many as “the Baptist Academy.” For years, teachers and staff delivered prayers, mandated students complete religious-oriented assignments and encouraged involvement in religious clubs. Teachers offered Bible readings or biblical interpretations and talked about the churches they attended. Christian prayers during sporting events and other activities were common. All this was encouraged and endorsed by Principal Frank Lay.”

    Wow, that sounds like a horrible school! How have they managed to get away with this crap for so long? I’m surprised it took so long for any lawsuits to be filed against that school. Jeebus, I’d say the Principal especially deserves a little jail time for this crap, and he should never be allowed to be a principal at any school ever again. Ugh!

  • Dan W

    Reading the comments on that article from the Portland Humanist Examiner… if you don’t want to facepalm or headdesk, I’d recommend against it. Oh, the stupid, it burns!

  • Dan W

    One last thing, about the aol story. I rarely even bother to read the comments on aol stories anymore, because they tend to be filled with so many religious nuts and ignorant asshats. It’s just sad. I usually vote in the online polls relating to their news stories, but I’m always disappointed to see that my opinion in the minority of votes there. There are way too many ignorant, irrational idiots on aol these days.

  • Heidi

    I don’t understand why anyone thinks jail time is too harsh for willfully violating a court agreement. It’s the established punishment. It’s not like somebody just woke up one morning and said “hey, I know what to do to the praying guy!”

    He committed an offense for which the punishment is imprisonment. So he should be imprisoned. The end.

  • john

    hi everyone. I wanted to add some background about mr. Lay as a former student from pace high school. i am a believer so i apologize in advance if some bias slips out that and i dont have spell check on this phone. Pace, the city, is an extremely religious little town outside Pcola. christian caucasian is the order of the day. Lay fits in such a community and as such, violations arent pressed. i know yall are up in arms but fact of the matter is the community that doesnt approve of him tend to just tolerate it because hes a good principal and his administration has done a LOT for students. i honestly dont know what should be done. id prefer charges dropped and dismissal…only because i know theres some school out there that could use soneone like him. What are yall’s thoughts about people who perform good public service, but do so in the name of their religion? and does it make a difference whether or not they are preaching it?

  • Sarah Ray

    He was asked to pray. It was not a voluntary action. In todays society and world of laws an rules, it has come down to any person can be fired for any reason without cause. So if he had not prayed, then would there have been fall out from that as well. I am a Christian and believe that I have the right to bow my head and voice out loud a prayer at any time. If it is not agreeable to someone else, then they do not have to participate but it is my right. There are many who do things that I disagree with but I can not legally stop them from doing it. Why is it that Christians are constantly penalized for having and expressing the same rights as others. My sons have experienced it in school and I have experienced it in the work place. Others have the rights to discuss gays and their rights, other religions, are able to take off work for their race, religion but as for Christain’s, we are not allowed to speak of, take off of work for Good Friday… etc. It is time that the world of law and rights recognizes ours as well. He should NOT go to Jail. He was asked to pray and he complied.

  • Tdubb7

    What law did he break!

  • Erica

    I found this website while looking for sites to get an update on what is going on with the School officials in Pace. And I have to say I feel sorry for most of you that have left comments. I am a Christian, and I feel that all those who don’t believe in God are taking MY rights from me. It’s ok for you to teach your children your belief but you try to take away my right to teach my children that there is hope for this world. Do you really think these people committed a crime by saying a few words over a meal or at a school function? Did it really physically hurt someone? I’m more concerned about school officials that are molesting children than I am someone praying. It’s just amazing to me that so many atheists believe that we are rude and disrespectful when all we are trying to do is share truth with you and give you a hope for the future because we love you the way that Jesus loves you. We are living in a time that hope is all we have. I am thankful for Christians that have the courage to stand up for what they believe in and are willing to face the punishment for the sake of Jesus. Saying a prayer is not a crime and did not hurt the children at that school. The last I heard we live in a FREE country. Christians are losing their freedom in America every day. So sad.

  • jrfrog

    Erica, I appreciate your comments but can you not understand that not all persons who find awe and hope in this world are Christians. Can you understand that as a non-believer, I feel that Christians and other believers are taking away MY rights by forcing their beliefs on me? I do not want you to share your unsolicited ‘truth’ with me. If this is indeed a ‘free country’, I should have as much right not to be subjected to religious teachings as you do to hold them dear. The school officials at Pace are being held to account for their contempt of court, not for praying.

  • crow

    I am a Christian and believe that I have the right to bow my head and voice out loud a prayer at any time. If it is not agreeable to someone else, then they do not have to participate but it is my right.

    Gee, Sarah, I am a Christian too, but I was always taught that my right to freedom of religion did not make it any less RUDE to hog the public space, that irritating the people around me wasn’t an effective way to ‘bring the Good News’, and that it was unChristian to use spoken prayer to make oneself the center of attention and ‘rebuke the unbeliever’. As to whether ‘saying a prayer…hurt the children at that school’ certainly knowing that the principal made a solemn promise under oath not to do so and then promptly broke his word doesn’t demonstrate Christian values. You might want to do a little reading up on another Christian virtue – ‘humility’.

  • jrfrog


    (CNN) — A judge has ruled in favor of two Florida school administrators who faced contempt charges for saying a prayer at a school luncheon, according to a group that helped represent them.
    U.S. District Judge M.C. Rodgers ruled Thursday in favor of Frank Lay, principal of Pace High School in Pace, Florida, and school athletic director Robert Freeman, the Liberty Counsel said.
    Lay and Freeman could have faced up to six months in prison and fines if convicted. They were accused of violating a consent decree banning county school employees from initiating prayers during school events.
    Ahead of the court proceedings, hundreds of supporters lined the streets outside the federal courthouse in Pensacola, Florida. Many of them carried signs and some sang songs.
    “It is ridiculous that these men even had to think twice about blessing a meal,” Liberty Counsel founder Matthew Staver said in a written statement.
    “To criminalize the prayer conflicts with our nation’s founding and guiding principles and goes directly against our constitutionally protected rights.”
    But the American Civil Liberties Union, whose lawsuit led to the consent decree, has maintained students have a right to be free from administrators who foist their personal religious beliefs on them.
    Still, an ACLU representative has said the organization “never suggested” people should go to jail for violating the decree, and the organization was not involved in the criminal proceedings.
    The ACLU filed suit last year against the district on behalf of two Pace students who alleged that “school officials regularly promoted religion and led prayers at school events,” according to an ACLU statement.


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