May 2012 Church & State | People & Events

A federal judge has ordered staff members at a Texas public school district to apologize for negative comments they made about a local family who challenged church-state violations at the school.

In February, Americans United announced that it had settled a lawsuit over school-sponsored religious activity at the Medina Valley Independent School District in Castroville, Texas.

Americans United filed the lawsuit in May 2011 on behalf of Christa and Danny Schultz and their two sons, Trevor and Corwyn, both of whom recently graduated from Medina Valley High School. Members of the Schultz family are agnostics and opposed official prayers during the graduation ceremony and other religious activities at the school.

Under the terms of the settlement, district officials, administrators, teachers, staff and other employees will not initiate, solicit or direct prayers; join students in prayers; proselytize or invite others to engage in these practices. A separate part of the settlement bars district employees from disparaging the plaintiffs.

Shortly after the settlement was filed, Superintendent James Stansberry appeared on a local television station and called the lawsuit a “witch hunt.” Stansberry also asserted, incorrectly, that the Schultz family “wanted our teachers to stop wearing crosses.”

Around the same time, Keith Riley, the high school band director, posted a Facebook comment accusing Corwyn Schultz of relying on “lies and false accusations.”

Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper brought these statements to the school district’s lawyers and requested apologies. When these were not forthcoming, Lipper asked the court to enforce the settlement order.

On March 19, U.S. District Judge Fred Biery issued what he called “a non-Kumbaya” order telling Stansberry and Riley to apologize; he also told the Schultzes to accept the apology.

“The Court takes no pleasure in holding contempt hearings or sanctioning violations of court orders,” Biery wrote. “Indeed, in thirty-three years of Texas and United States judicial service, the Court recalls only four instances of threatening or imposing sanctions, all of which involved parties or lawyers speaking words better left unspoken. Or as grandmothers and moms have taught for generations: ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.’”

Biery added, “Trouble does not come from words unspoken, particular in this age of e-mails, tweets, cameras, and recorders.”

Biery’s colorful order attracted national attention and was mentioned in The Wall Street Journal, Texas Lawyer and other publications.

Both Stansberry and Riley subsequently provided signed apologies to school district attorneys, who forwarded them to Americans United. Members of the Schultz family then signed an apology-acceptance statement that was sent to the school, bringing the matter to a close.

School officials have apparently learned their lesson. After the order was issued, the school was contacted for comment by the San Antonio Express-News but issued a terse statement reading, “We have no comment and are moving on.”