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Associated Press

PENSACOLA - Hundreds of Christian protesters rallied outside a federal courthouse Thursday as a rural Panhandle principal and his athletic director were cleared of violating a judge's order against praying in school.

In the evening, Judge M. Case Rodgers ruled that Pace High School principal Frank Lay and athletic director Robert Freeman didn't violate a 2008 agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union that was approved by the court. Rodgers said the prayer at a field house dedication during the school day was spontaneous, and there did not seem to be intent to violate the order.

The men could have gotten six months in jail and $5,000 each in fines.

The Santa Rosa County School Board had approved the agreement after much consultation with its various attorneys, board member Joann Simpson testified Thursday morning.

The agreement stated that the district would end its long-standing policy of promoting Christianity in its schools, she said.

"We were in a tight budget year, and we had already spent more than $500,000 in lawsuits," she said.

But just nine days after the agreement was signed, the veteran principal and Baptist church deacon asked his athletic director to pray at a field house dedication during the school day that was held on church property.

Lay's attorney, Barry Beroset, said his client made an innocent mistake and intended the prayer only to bless the noon meal.

"The law requires that you find he did this with some bad intention and that was not the case," Beroset argued.

The court was filled to capacity when the proceedings began Thursday morning. Christian protesters and students and faculty members lined the streets outside with signs and megaphones protesting the ACLU and singing Christian hymns.

In afternoon testimony, Lay and Freeman both testified that there was a long-standing culture of prayer at school events, which included a Bible club and routine prayers at school meals and athletic events. The men said praying at the field house luncheon was a "reflex," done out of habit.