Aug 13, 2009

To Pray or Not to Pray in Public Places

Chuck Missler
By Chuck Missler

Lodi, California has become a hotspot in the public prayer controversy. In May, the Lodi City Council opened its bi-monthly meeting with a public prayer like it always did, but that time somebody decided to make a stink about it. That person contacted the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation to get the city council to stop praying "in Jesus name." Since then, the pre-meeting prayers have continued, but without specific reference to Jesus or anybody else.

The city council was supposed to make a decision about its prayer policy last week, and crowds of people on both sides of the argument gathered to make their opinions known and to hear the final resolution. For two hours a huge crowd of pro-prayer supporters rallied right next to a smaller, but still large group of those who favored having a moment-of-silence instead. In the packed Wednesday meeting itself, people from each side had the opportunity to make their arguments. In the end, the city council decided to postpone their final decision until the September 30th meeting.

The Pacific Justice Institute, a legal defense organization that specializes in parental rights and defending religious freedom, offered the city council a solution to help them resolve the controversy. PJI suggested that the city council simply allow ministers or other members of the public to open the meetings with uncensored prayer of their own, giving the persons praying the freedom to pray in Jesus name or not as they chose.

Brad Dacus, president of Pacific Justice Institute, commented,
"It is simply un-American for the government to censor speech, including the mention of God or Jesus, by private citizens in a public setting. We are offering the City of Lodi a practical, constitutional solution to this needless controversy so the out-of-state special interests can fold their tents and go home."
Across the country in Pace, Florida, a similar and even more heated controversy has been going on. The principal of Pace High School, Frank Lay, is headed for a court hearing on September 17th because he asked the school athletic director, Robert Freeman, to "bless the food" at a luncheon for school personnel and booster club members at Pace High School. For those three words, Lay and Freeman were accused of violating a court order to keep religion out of the school.

Sixty-year-old Lay comes across as a down-to-earth southern country man with a sparkle in his eye and a fun sense of humor. You can't detect a smidgen of pride or vinegar in him. He also loves Jesus and is very transparent about that fact, even as the principal of a public high school. As Lay put it during a speech at his church, his Christianity is who he is. It's "gonna ooze out" of him.

The southern town of Pace, Florida, where Lay was raised, is still a conservative, family-oriented community, and a majority of the teachers and students at Pace High School are also Christians. The idea of kicking God out of the schools had never really gotten through to Pace. Until August 2008, the high school had developed a fairly Christian flavor about it, and students and outside leaders were regularly asked to pray at school events. Teachers were free about discussing religious matters in class and did not shy from talking about their churches or encouraging students to join religious clubs.

That is, until two high school students contacted the ACLU, which sued the Santa Rosa County School board, the then-superintendent, and Frank Lay. By January of 2009, the school district had worked out an agreement to keep religion out of the schools. US District Judge Casey Rodgers approved the agreement and issued an injunction on January 19th, and Lay signed it.

Then, nine days later, Lay made that fatal suggestion for a blessing over the booster club members' food. School Board member Jo Ann Simpson was at the luncheon and reported what she considered to be a violation of the consent decree.

There has been a mixed reaction from the residents of Pace over the whole ordeal. Dana O'Keefe, the mother of two Pace High graduates, did not think Lay had done anything wrong.
"A blessing over a meal to me is not evangelism or proselytizing. It's just thanking a higher power for a meal."
A huge portion of the community is behind Lay, but there are those who wonder why he still has his job. Philip Yale, father of three Pace High graduates said,
"He is not above the law. There is only one God, and it isn't Frank Lay."
Lay is weary over the whole thing.
"You are fearful what you can and cannot say," he said. "If a kid sneezes and you say ‘Bless you,' what then?

"You get tired of it — tired of hearing it, tired of dealing with it. We should be pushing on toward academic achievement, helping kids grow and develop, and moving on into the world. It's been a distraction."
Lay will submit to the judgment of Judge Rodgers in September.
"I'm hoping she'll be very gracious that day," he smiled. "She will do what she is called to do. If that means hammering me, so be it. But I hope that's not the case."
Lay and Freeman could each face up to six months in jail or a $5,000 fine. The Liberty Counsel is intervening on behalf of the Santa Rosa County educators. "Pray for our schools" has become a common yard sign in the area, and financial and moral support is flying to Pace from all over the county.

According to US Supreme Court rulings, public school teachers are not to proselytize students, but there are still a lot of religious freedoms that students and teachers retain in school. It's a difficult area, especially when people do not know where the legal lines are drawn.

Related Links

PJI Offers Solution to Lodi Prayer Controversy - Pacific Justice Institute
Tempers Flare as Lodi Council Tackles Prayer Debate - ABC News 10
A Principal's Principles - Pensacola News Journal
Prayer In Contempt? Pace High Administrators May Face Charges - Northwest Florida Daily News
Local Residents Battle ACLU Lawsuit - Fox News