PACE, Fla. - Students across the country gathered around their school's flagpoles Wednesday, and prayed. At one Florida school, however, theprayer was more of a celebration.
Pace High School's principal and athletic director were found
As the school buses rolled in,
"I think the prayers today were based more on our school and thestruggles we are facing, keeping our faith strong," said sophomoreTyler Lovett.
Last week, Principal Frank Lay and Athletic Director RobertFreeman were found not guilty on criminal contempt charges. It allstarted when Lay asked Freeman to say a prayer at a school athleticbanquet, violating a court-approved agreement.
Shelton Lovern with the Pace Assembly of God led the songs.
"I saw a comfort, a release in their attitudes spirit, gladeverything is in the past now," said Lovern.
"I think its caused us to be so much more bold for our faith,"senior Jordan Smith said.
A few years ago, the teachers wouldn't have stayed inside. Theywould have been out at the flagpole praying with the students.
"Today they were strictly out there in support role. In thepast, there was some interaction and connection. Since the consentdecree, we've had to back off," Principal Lay said.
Lay says the case has caused more students to speak out abouttheir faith, but it's difficult for some of the teachers to justsit back.
"There's a lot of teachers, faculty members here, administratorsof Christian faith and believers. Sometimes we have to restrainourselves, if you will, because we aren't able to do that," Layadded.
Lay says they'll continue to honor the agreement, but they won'tstand in the way of the students exercising their own freedom ofspeech.
On Thursday, September 17, Lay and Freeman were met with thecheers of over 300 people, as they headed into a Pensacola federalcourthouse. The two men faced jail time and fines if Judge M. CaseyRodgers finds they violated the 2008 agreement with the American CivilLiberties Union, or ACLU, that was approved by the court.
The court was filled to capacity when the proceedings began.Christian protesters, students and faculty lined the streetsoutside with signs and megaphones, protesting the ACLU.
During testimony, Lay admitted asking Freeman to say a blessingat an athletic banquet.
"It was out of habit, if you will, just saying a blessing overthe food," Lay said.
Over 700 Pace High School students took an unexcused absenceThursday to support their principal and coach. Pace High Schoolsenior Hayley Hinote says she believes the men did nothingwrong.
"It was more of a humble blessing that he offered, and I thinkthat's a Southern tradition. It's something you don't really thinktwice about in our community, and I think that's honestly the wayit was passed along, this is just something that came from withinthem as human beings and as Christians on top of that," saidHinote.
Federal Court Judge Casey Rodgers said the court did not findthat Mr. Freeman and Mr. Lay violated the temporary injunction,with knowing intent, beyond a reasonable doubt. Her Honor handeddown not guilty verdicts for both men.
Minutes after the defense council received the verdict and leftthe courtroom they were greeted by an emotional, and extremelyexcited crowd.
Mr. Lay thanked his family and supporters.
"Above all, above all, I want to thank the Chief Council, Godthe Father, God The Son, and God the Holy Spirit," said Lay.
"I thank the judicial system of America, and let's give God theglory," Freeman added.
Pace High School students say they came up with an idea of aT-shirt to support Mr. Lay and Mr. Freeman.
"It shows all the percentages of what a Patriot [the school'smascot] is made up of: 'Compassion, Dedication, Determination,' andthen 'Spirit' is in bold because we're supporting the spirit of theLord," said Caroline Brantley.
Darby Cowan says the shirts are to let everyone know that Layand Freeman have had the support of their students from dayone.
"Mr. Lay is a hero to me, and he's a wonderful man, and I feltlike we needed to show our support in some way," said Cowan.
The students say they sold more than 600 T-shirts. Some of themoney will be used to pay for the shirts, and what is left will gotowards the Lay-Freeman defense fund.
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