Does v. Santa Rosa County School District: Top 5 Myths and Facts

As several employees of the Santa Rosa County School District face upcoming court-ordered contempt hearings for violating a federal court order in a case originally brought by the ACLU on behalf of two Santa Rosa students, a number of falsehoods and inaccuracies have been reported and repeated in the media. 

This document aims to dispel these myths and provide the true facts that have led these three employees to face contempt-of-court proceedings.

Myth #1: Three school employees face contempt-of-court hearings as punishment for praying.

The Facts: Principal Lay, Athletic Director Freeman, and Administrative Assistant Michelle Winkler face contempt-of-court proceedings because they purposefully defied a court order.

Further Facts: As explained further below, several months after the lawsuit was filed in August 2008, Principal Lay, the Santa Rosa Superintendent, and the School Board admitted to the court, in writing, that they had repeatedly violated the constitutional rights of students, parents, and staff. With the agreement of the defendants, including Principal Lay's attorney, the judge entered a preliminary injunction in January 2009 prohibiting the school district officials from unlawfully sponsoring prayers, proselytizing students, and generally promoting religion throughout district schools. Only weeks later, Principal Lay, Director Freeman, and Assistant Winkler violated that order. Thus, any contempt penalties imposed by the court will not be punishment for praying; rather, they will be the consequences of refusing to follow a court order. No one is above the law. As the success of our judicial system depends on fidelity to this fundamental principle, the courts have an inherent duty to ensure compliance with their orders.

Myth #2: Principal Lay and Assistant Winkler did not realize that they were violating a court order when they directed prayers to take place at official, school-sponsored events.

The Facts: The school employees knew about the court's order and were well aware that their actions violated the court's order.

Further Facts: Several months after the lawsuit began, it became apparent that the unlawful activities initially identified by plaintiffs were just the tip of the iceberg and that school district officials had established a long history and pervasive pattern of egregious constitutional violations. Indeed, the Pace High Teacher Handbook required school personnel to "embrace every opportunity to inculcate, by precept and example, the practice of every Christian virtue." Consistent with this mandate, district officials often led or directed students in prayer at extracurricular and athletic events, arranged for prayer during graduation ceremonies, proselytized students during and outside of class, and sponsored religious baccalaureate services. One teacher displayed a waist-high white cross in her classroom.

Unable to dispute these illegal activities, defendants, including Principal Lay, admitted to the court, in writing, that they had repeatedly broken the law, and agreed that the court should enter a preliminary injunction pending a final consent order to be worked out by the parties. The court's preliminary order barred school officials from "[p]romoting, advancing, aiding, facilitating, endorsing, or causing religious prayers or devotionals during school-sponsored events." Principal Lay, a party to the case, was intimately familiar with the order, and as school district employees, Director Freeman and Assistant Winkler each received a copy of the order and instruction from the school district not to violate it. In addition, when Assistant Winkler's request to deliver a prayer during the Employee of the Year banquet was denied because it would violate the court's order against school-sponsored prayer, she sought to evade the court's order by asking her husband to deliver a prayer in her stead.

Myth #3: The prayers directed by Principal Lay and Assistant Winkler were permissible because no students were present at the events.

The Facts: Students were present at both the Employee of the Year Banquet, where Assistant Winkler directed a prayer to take place, and the field house dedication luncheon, where Principal Lay instigated prayer.

Further Facts: School district students and faculty, the superintendent, community members, and one or more school board members attended the February Employee of the Year Banquet at which Assistant Winkler directed her husband to offer a prayer. In fact, the prayer was preceded by two students' recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance to open the banquet.

Students also attended the field house dedication luncheon, which was held on campus during the school day. As Principal Lay even admitted in writing, "Culinary class students were in charge of the food preparation and serving."

Even if students had not attended these events, however, Principal Lay, Director Freeman, and Assistant Winkler would not have had carte blanche to use their official positions to promote religion.The court's order properly barred school-sponsored prayer at any official school event because, as a general rule, the Constitution prohibits public-school officials from sponsoring or promoting prayer — a fact that the school board, Principal Lay, and the superintendent all recognized when each of them subsequently agreed to the final consent order in this case.

Myth # 4: The ACLU seeks to ban prayer and all other religious expression and activities from the Santa Rosa County School District.

The Facts: The ACLU seeks only to ensure that prayer and other religious activities that take place in Santa Rosa County School District are not school-sponsored.

Further facts: By directing, promoting, sponsoring, or otherwise endorsing prayer or religious activity, public schools infringe on the constitutional right of students, parents, teachers, and other staff to determine for themselves their religious beliefs and practices. In sponsoring prayer and religious exercise, public schools also send a message to students, parents, staff, and the community that the government favors one faith over another or prefers believers to non-believers. This message is inimical to the basic principle of fairness that sustains a democracy.

But while the ACLU opposes government-sponsored religious exercise, the ACLU has never sought to rid public schools of all prayer or religious speech. On the contrary, the ACLU has always endeavored vigorously to protect the rights of individuals to exercise their religion, including in public schools, as this sampling of ACLU Free Exercise cases illustrates. To that end, the ACLU supports the rights of Santa Rosa students to pray, read religious literature, or engage in other religious activities during nondirected student activity time (e.g., recess, lunch, etc) subject to the rules that normally apply in the applicable setting, provided that such activity does not cause a material disruption or substantially interfere with the educational process of other students. Likewise, the ACLU supports the rights of teachers and other school staff to exercise their religious beliefs, provided that they do so in their personal, rather than official, capacities and in a manner that does not affiliate their beliefs with the school.

Myth # 5: The ACLU wants to send people to jail for praying.

The Facts: Though the ACLU believes that the disrespect and disdain shown to the court by Principal Lay, Director Freeman, and Assistant Winkler are serious in nature and must have meaningful consequences, the ACLU does not believe that jail is an appropriate remedy for this type of court order violation. The ACLU has never suggested or proposed that Principal Lay, Director Freeman, or Assistant Winkler be sent to prison for their refusal to comply with the court's order. Indeed, as Assistant Winker faces a civil contempt hearing, she will only be eligible to receive a fine if the court holds her in contempt. The penalties for Principal Lay and Director Freeman, if held in criminal contempt, will be decided by the court, not the ACLU, which has no role in the criminal contempt proceeding.

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