By Heather L. Weaver, Staff Attorney, ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief

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:

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.