Religion in Society

UPDATE-School Employees Cleared of Criminal Charges for Prayer

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SANTA ROSA COUNTY, FL -- Thursday after an all-day hearing, Santa Rosa County, Florida, Principal Frank Lay and Athletic Director Robert Freeman were cleared of criminal contempt charges that arose from the simple blessing of a meal. When they heard the decision, tears of joy and cheers swept through the throngs of people who had waited outside in the rain for over ten hours.

A mixture of people, young and old, stood all day with signs and umbrellas. Many students missed class to show up with bright yellow T-shirts that read, "Lay's Supportive Patriots." Chants of "We came to pray for Lay," the Lord's Prayer, and hymns were at times audible inside the courtroom. By 9:00, when the hearing started, the scene outside looked like a revival. Busloads of church members, Christian groups and other supporters arrived from throughout the region and emptied into the congested parking areas.

Ironically, the criminal contempt trial occurred on the 222nd anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution. And also ironically, in the same courtroom where Lay and Freeman were tried as criminals for saying a prayer over a meal in the presence of 20 adult supporters of the school's Athletic Field House, there hangs on the wall a picture of the signing of the Constitution. Only a few weeks before that great event, when the Constitutional Convention had begun to fall apart, Benjamin Franklin rose up and delivered his famous speech to remind his bickering colleagues that unless God is the foundation and builder of the house, those who labor do so in vain. He urged the members to pray, and after a three-day prayer meeting, the Constitution was born.

Liberty Counsel Senior Litigation Counsel Horatio Mihet was also part of the irony on the day of the hearing. He, along with Mathew Staver, represented Lay and Freeman. In 1990, at age 12, he witnessed the collapse of the repressive Romanian communist regime as the revolution unfolded in his town of 400,000. When police arrested a pastor for preaching, the people finally had enough. Crowds gathered outside the home of the preacher and shouted, "We need God." In one week the revolution spread and the dictator was toppled. Harry witnessed his first day of freedom on December 25, 1990. While the crowd on National Constitution Day looked different than the one in 1990, both yearned for religious freedom.

Mathew Staver, Founder of Liberty Counsel and Dean of Liberty University School of Law, commented on the case: "I was deeply moved while sitting in the courtroom on National Constitution Day and hearing allegations that honorable men should be treated like criminals over blessing a meal. For a moment I felt I must be watching a futuristic movie filled with hyperbole about how it might one day be if we lose our liberties. But this was real. It was no movie. I have witnessed the day where someone who blesses a meal would be treated like a criminal -- not in communist countries -- but in America! This case has made clear the radical agenda of the ACLU -- to criminalize Christianity."

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