By Stefan J. Bos, Worthy News Chief International Correspondent
WASHINGTON, USA (Worthy News)-- Christian school employees in Santa Rosa County of the U.S. state of Florida are forced to "hide in closets" to pray under a controversial court order, according to a non-profit public interest law firm.
Liberty Counsel, which provides free legal assistance in issues of "Christian religious liberty, the sanctity of human life, and the traditional family," said it successfully defended Michelle Winkler, a clerical assistant, “from contempt charges” brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The ACLU reportedly said she violated regulations after her husband, who is not employed by the Santa Rosa County School District, offered a meal prayer at what Liberty Counsel described as a “privately sponsored event” in a neighboring county.
On Constitution Day, Liberty Counsel said it also successfully defended Pace High School Principal Frank Lay and Athletic Director Robert Freeman against criminal contempt charges, "after the ACLU complained that Freeman offered a 15-second blessing for a lunch meal for about 20 adults with no students present."
Under an order crafted by the ACLU, school officials are considered to be acting in their "official capacity" whenever they attend a "school event," which the order describes as any event "approved" by the a school official, Liberty Counsel said.
These include events during the day, including breaks, after-school events on or off campus, and privately sponsored events held on campus. A "school event" also includes a private group renting the school facilities if the "primary attendees" are students, such as the Scouts and Good News Clubs.
In a statement, monitored by BosNewsLife Sunday, December 6, Liberty Counsel said it is assisting the Christian Educators Association International, which is seeking to overturn the court order, which resulted in three school officials being charged with contempt.
Trial testimony, which ended this week, apparently revealed how the order has literally driven Christians to hide in closets to pray in order to avoid contempt charges.
During testimony, Michelle Winkler broke down on the witness stand when she described how a coworker sought comfort from her after losing her two-year-old child, Legal Counsel said. "The two hid behind a closet door to pray, for fear they would be seen and held in contempt of the court order."
Denise Gibson, an elementary teacher for 20 years, reportedly testified the order forces her to tell parents she cannot respond if they talk about church or their faith. She was quoted as saying that she may not even respond to an email from a parent if it contains a Scripture verse or "God bless you."
"Instead, the District requires her to open a separate email to respond rather than hit "reply," in order to eliminate any trace of religious language," Liberty Counsel said.
Liberty Counsel Founder Mathew D. Staver said he was "embarrassed" for the United States, "knowing that school employees in Santa Rosa County are hiding in closets to pray out of fear they may be hauled into court by the ACLU."
He said his organization wants to "to restore religious freedom to Santa Rosa County. We will not allow the ACLU to criminalize Christianity."
The ACLU has been vocal in promoting the separation of church and state. However Christian activists have said the organization's actions have gone to far.
The controversy in Florida is part of a wider development in the United States targeting devoted Christian school employees and students, rights groups and church leaders have suggested.
Earlier this year, schools in the American state of Illinois were pressured to abandon a moment of silence for prayer or reflection, after a judge ruled the practice was "unconstitutional" and "forced religion" upon minors.
In addition, President Barack Obama signed into law the nation's biggest ever economic stimulus plan which bans religious worship or instruction in university and college facilities that receive state funds for renovations.
One of the effects will be to bar Bible studies and worship meetings by Christian and other religious student groups in facilities that have undergone repairs or modernization work underwritten by stimulus funds, according to religious liberty advocates.
Obama has tried to play down suggestions that he is anti -faith. He told Christianity Today magazine last year, saying he want to reach out to evangelical Christians. “I am a a Christian, and I am a devout Christian. I believe in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that that faith gives me a path to be cleansed of sin and have eternal life,” he said. (With additional reporting by Jerusalem Bureau Chief George Whitten).