Fox Wildly Distorts ACLU Religious Liberty Case

(Cross-posted to Daily Kos and Firedoglake.)

Florida's Santa Rosa County School District has a long and unrepentant history of unconstitutionally sponsoring prayers, proselytizing students, and generally promoting particular religious beliefs throughout district schools. In August 2008, no longer able to bear this infringement on their liberties, two students at Pace High School sued the district with the assistance of the ACLU. Many in the community reacted in an uproar: the student plaintiffs were vilified in the media and threatened with rape and death, among other efforts to intimidate them, and district officials vowed to fight back. Pace High Principal H. Frank Lay was perhaps the most vocal, declaring during a fiery sermon at an off-campus church service (MP3): "This country is founded on Judeo-Christian principles, there is no doubt about that. . . . I walk up and down the halls everyday and I see tons of kids that aren't saved. They have hollow eyes. They are void of a spirit. They need Jesus."

But as the case proceeded and overwhelming evidence of a pervasive pattern of egregious constitutional violations continued to mount, it became clear that the district's activities were indefensible. How could the defendants explain away the Pace High Teacher Handbook, which, on page four, requires school personnel to "embrace every opportunity to inculcate, by precept and example, the practice of every Christian virtue"? How could they justify school officials' regularly leading or directing students in prayer at extracurricular and athletic events, arranging for prayer during graduation ceremonies, proselytizing students during and outside of class, and sponsoring religious baccalaureate services? How could they defend one teacher's display of a waist-high white cross in her classroom? They could not, and to the school board's credit, they (including Lay, a named defendant) admitted liability for their unlawful practices in December 2008, and agreed that the court should enter a preliminary injunction pending a final consent order to be worked out by the parties.

However, though every district employee received a copy of the court's preliminary injunction ordering school officials to immediately cease their longstanding and pervasive practice of "[p]romoting, advancing, aiding, facilitating, endorsing, or causing religious prayers or devotionals during school-sponsored events," several decided to flout the court's authority and directed that school-sponsored prayers take place regardless. After learning of these violations, the court ordered two of those employees — Lay and Pace High Athletic Director Robert Earl Freeman — to face criminal contempt proceedings next month.

During the September 17 hearing, Lay and Freeman will have to answer for their roles in promoting prayer during a school luncheon to dedicate a new field house. (Another school employee will face a separate civil contempt complaint tomorrow for similarly violating the same court order). If held in criminal contempt, the pair could be assessed a fine and/or or assigned up to six months in jail.

Fox News, not surprisingly, has had a field day with the field house prayer, devoting no fewer than five on-air segments to the contempt proceedings in the last week alone, all of which have focused exclusively on the fact that Lay and Freeman could be subject to prison time if found in criminal contempt of court. Consistent with Fox's modus operandi,each new segment ratcheted up the hysteria with Bill O'Reilly declaring that the judge (who, O'Reilly neglects to mention, was appointed by former President George W. Bush) is "probably an atheist" and Mike Huckabee warning ominously on his show last weekend to "be careful when you pray, Big Brother is watching."

But as LiberalViewer so artfully points out in this YouTube video breaking down these Fox segments, when you take a closer look at the actual facts here (which Fox largely distorts or ignores), the upcoming contempt proceedings are wholly unremarkable:

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Lay and Freeman openly violated a federal court order (something judges do not take kindly to) and now they must answer to the judge — facing the same consequences that may be imposed on any person subject to a criminal contempt proceeding in any case. There is nothing unusual about that. Indeed, even if they are found in contempt, it is unlikely that the court will order jail time here; no one — including the ACLU — has argued that prison would be an appropriate sanction in this particular proceeding. Undeterred by these facts, Fox News nevertheless seems more intent on sensationalizing the case than reporting the truth.

If the contempt proceedings against Lay and Freeman are noteworthy at all, it is for an entirely different reason than the controversy ginned up by Fox News and its ilk: in the irony of all ironies, Lay and Freeman's September 17 court hearing is slated to take place on "Constitution and Citizenship Day," an annual commemoration of the signing of the Constitution, which federal law requires public schools to observe with relevant educational programming.

The confluence of these two events sets the stage for a perfect teachable moment for Santa Rosa students, as there are a number of valuable civics lessons that can be drawn from this case, including, among others, the necessity of respect for the rule of law and the authority of the judicial system; and the vital role that the Constitution plays in protecting those of minority faiths from governmental intrusion and coercion. Let's just hope that Santa Rosa's civics teachers, and indeed, teachers across the country, can see through the Fox News hype to recognize and impart these crucial lessons to their students, who, after all, will be our future lawmakers, attorneys, and judges. Otherwise, the Constitution doesn't have a prayer.

Check out our Myths & Facts page to learn more about this case.

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Peggy Hall

Santa Rosa School district is still breaking all the rules - they seem to be using other schools to keep the abuse going -

BJ Henry

I grew up Christian, known pagans, been around a whole lot of people in my brief fourty-seven years. Many years my closest friends were wiccans. But I've come full circle back to God and his son Jesus. You see, the world would be a better place if for nothing else but live by his word. But the good news is; he is the source of life.
So many children are without love for life as it is. To know Jesus is a far better alternative to drugs and street life.
The ACLU should be defenders of good, decent, productives life rather than any and all walks of even the most destructive and vile. When anything goes, everything dies.


I have recently aske the aclu to handle a case for me. that effect the ecomomic abilites of myself and thousand of others. But when i look at the caes they hanle it make me wonder. Do I want them to represent me? So after i got a email telling about this case i decided to blog about it and this is what i return to all thise people that recieved the same emial i did .
I would say a prayer does wonders but how about the freedom of speech I would urge everyone the got this email to go to the aclu's web site and tell them how you feel about them enfringing upon your freedom of religion post it on their blog and over run their system. maybe it will work, maybe it won't! but when ever the freedoms of one person is expanded it takes the freedom from the others they look at issues with discrimination and create more. they take issues of choice of illegal or immoral issues and turn them into rights. Take a look around!


Steve, did the young man go to the ACLU as did the students in Florida? Did the teacher try to forbid the students from praying?

Susan, I presume you are a Christian, so I will ask you to read Steve's post and then walk a mile in the shoes of a non-Christian in that school.


Your organization has gone too far.
Your doing the very thing you claim to be against, depriving people of their constitutional rights.
Your movement is sinceless.

Alabama Outlaw!

I am quite shocked at reading this article. 10 years ago I was a student at Pace High School. Frank Lay was my principal and Robert Freedom was my athletic director. Both of these men set the standard not just for Pace High School, Santa Rosa County, or even the State of Florida, but on a much bigger level. They set the bar very high for the entire country and more importantly the students they taught. The compassion that each of these men shows towards their job and the student’s lives they impact have no ends. As anyone who is well versed in history will tell you, one of the foundations of this great country was the Christian religion. I’m sure everyone has seen a nickel; which on the heads up side reads, “In God We Trust” in capital letters. I don’t follow the ACLU too closely, but to my knowledge, I have yet to hear a case against the U.S. Mint declaring the monies that are used everyday by several countries including our own are unconstitutional.

Regardless of my own religion, I feel that these charges are absurd and unnecessary. Being raised in what is commonly known as the “Bible Belt,” I understand that prayer is an everyday happening whether one believes in a one true god or not. Everyone that is subject to a prayer has the option to not bow their head and keep their eyes open and simply ignore the next few words to be said. This is not a complex or difficult task, but rather a menial and simple one. A prayer or display of a cross in no way shape or form presses a religion upon another person, but rather subjects them to the beliefs of those that choose to display the various forms of religion. This is not a violation of anyone’s rights whatsoever!

As I just stated, no one is forcing religion upon anyone else. One of the qualities that make our country one of the greatest to ever exist is the many freedoms that we as American’s are afforded by the Bill of Rights. Amendment 1 of the Bill of Rights gives citizens of the United States of America freedom of religion. It does not state that displaying or practicing a particular religion is illegal or unacceptable, but rather we as U.S. citizens are given the freedom to practice whatever religion we choose. At the risk of sounding redundant, I will say again that the charges brought against these two outstanding men of society are absurd and altogether incongruous.

I do agree that FOX has stretched the truth to make the ACLU sound crazy, but I do not think that such actions were necessary as the headlines have already caused them to seem foolish. In closing, I would like to wish my former educators Frank Lay and Robert Freeman the best of luck and want them to know that we are all pulling for them.

Learn to read

No one in the ACLU has gone to a school that has taught them how to read. The Constitution states we have freedom OF religion, not freedom FROM religion. And the double standard is disgusting. The ACLU never attacks Muslims that want to infringe on our rights, only Christians, showing their double standard. It is time to put this organization out of business, and several groups are working on doing just that.

Psalm 14:1

This is an example of ACLU striving to place a barrier to rights and liberties! This case exposes ACLU's true agenda is NOT about liberties in America, as there are so many cases of freedom and liberty abuse that ACLU has deliberately turned their back on. America sees you, ACLU, as a THREAT to our freedoms and liberties!
ACLU: GO AWAY! Why do you go out of your way to force America to defend their freedoms?!

Cora C Day

Who gave you the right to decide where we can pray, or when we can say a blessing? You will never be able to remove God from the American people. Have you read this "One nation under God" it's on our government buildings, why do you think our Fore-Fathers did this? Just maybe they knew something obviously, and you don't.


The American Civil Liberties Union seems to be the only group of people who are willing to stand up for our freedom today.
The people who claim that the ACLU is attacking religious freedom is dead wrong. The ACLU is saying that the government should not interfere with the religious beliefs of anyone.
The greatest irony of all is that the man who accuses the ACLU of being a bunch of Nazis, is in fact, himself a Nazi. The Nazis believed in the combination of church and state, and were intolerant of anyone who did not share certain religious views. That is why they muerdered Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, atheists and others who did not agree with their religious beliefs. Furthrmore, that is exactly what this nut who made this accusation in advocating, the use of government to promote his religious views instead of somebody else's. Personally, I like my freedom to practice whatever religion I wish, and would hope that all those fascists who oppose the ACLU would go to Iran so they can see what happens whem the government promotes religion.
Thank god for the ACLU.


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