Martyr Complex: Florida School Officials Face Possible Penalties For Pushing Religion

No one is above the law.

That's a lesson that officials at a Florida public high school seem intent on learning the hard way.

Pace High School Principal Frank Lay and his athletic director, Robert Freeman, have been charged with criminal contempt for violating a federal court order that banned Santa Rosa County school officials from leading students in prayer during school events.

For years, Lay and his staff reportedly entangled their religious beliefs with school events. According to the Pensacola News Journal, under Lay's leadership, Pace High School became known as "the Baptist Academy." Teachers and staff delivered prayers and invited students or outside leaders to lead prayers during school activities. Teachers read from the Bible and discussed church attendance with students. Students were encouraged to attend religious clubs and incorporate religion into their schoolwork.

Earlier this year, the ACLU stepped in, suing the school district, the superintendent and Lay. The school district admitted its church-state transgressions, and a court order to keep religion promotion outside the classroom was issued on Jan. 19 by U.S. District Judge Casey Rodgers. The school signed a permanent agreement to this effect on May 6.

But less than two weeks after the court injunction, Lay asked Freeman to offer an invocational prayer at a luncheon for school personnel and booster club members. A board member present at the event reported the violation.

Now, Lay and Freeman could face fines or jail time for violating the court order. A hearing is scheduled for Sept. 19.

Instead reprimanding the pair as bad role models for breaking the law, some are trying to turn these two men into Religious Right martyrs. Lay's pastor, the Rev. Ted Traylor of the Olive Baptist Church, called Lay a "family man with great integrity." He believes Lay is standing up against an unconstitutional decree by the court.

"If it continues to stand as it is, we are going to see an avalanche of these kinds of things where teachers cannot bow their heads to pray," Traylor told the Pensacola News Journal. "The consent order needs to be overturned, and I know there is work being done to make a run at that. There needs to be some common sense in the way they are dealing with this issue."

Lay's wife told the newspaper that her husband is "fighting a battle that needs to be fought."

"It is about freedom," she said. "It lies in the Constitution and our rights as Americans."

Earlier in the year, Lay spoke out at a rally at his church about the school's agreement to keep religion out of school events.

He declared, "No way are we going to back down, back off, lay down or roll over. I'm old. I don't want to fight, but I still have a few rounds left in me."

That day, hundreds of students and parents cheered him on to fight the court order. Now even a Web site has been created to raise money for their defense.

This is just like the Religious Right to turn breaking the law into some sort of religious crusade.

Forget the fact that their actions make students of other faiths feel like outsiders and violate the Constitution. As government officials, they have no right to impose their religious beliefs on students.

Instead, they should be teaching their students to respect the law and the Constitution, not to ignore it when they don't agree. I just don't think that's the best way to set a good example.