Investigator Says Staffer Accused of Preventing Child’s Lunchtime Prayer Could Not Have Been Present

From the Orlando Sentinel:

School officials said Wednesday that they can’t find any evidence to suggest that a kindergartner was told not to pray in a Seminole County elementary lunchroom.

…The dispute arose after 5-year-old Gabriella Perez told her parents that in March a staffer at Carillon Elementary in Oviedo stopped her from praying over her lunch.

Her father, Marcos Perez, who works for a Christian book publisher in Lake Mary that is promoting a book about the “attack on traditional values” in America, demanded an investigation and apology from the school. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

…A school-district investigator has concluded that “there is no way possible that person was anywhere near the lunchroom” that kindergartners and first-graders use.

Earlier this month, Christian Today (not to be confused with Christianity Today), reported the child’s identification of “the culprit” as if the facts were not in doubt.

The case has been highlighted by Right Wing Watch, which notes the remarkable coincidence that the controversy involved the infant daughter of the Vice President of Sales at Charisma House, at a time when the publisher’s imprint Frontline is publishing a book by Todd Starnes entitled God Less AmericaStarnes’ opus – which comes with a foreword by Mike Hukabee – purports to relate “true stories from the front lines of the attack on traditional values”, and the Perez story formed the basis of a recent Fox column by Starnes. The business link between Starnes and Perez was noted in an “editor’s note” at the head of the story.

The Orlando Sentinel adds that Seminole County Public Schools decided to issue an apology anyway – this is curious given the outcome of the investigation, but it may have made sense in terms of giving the complainant a chance to back down without losing face. This seems initially to have worked:

Jeremy Dys, the family’s attorney, said, “We are grateful for the apology offered by Seminole County Schools. The Perez family gladly accepts this apology, along with the assurances to the community by the School Board that students in Seminole County School are free to exercise their First Amendment freedoms while at school.”

However, the AP now reports that:

Two days after stating that Gabriella Perez’s family had accepted the apology, lawyer Jeremy Dys said their position changed after reading the comments of district spokesman Michael Lawrence in the Orlando Sentinel.

Dys said it is clear now the district’s response wasn’t “a real apology.” In addition, “we’re not really confident the investigation actually took place,” he said.

…Dys’ letter also claims Lawrence made “false and defamatory statements publicly and intentionally” about Gabriella and her family, and requested that he be disciplined.

Dys is Senior Counsel to the Liberty Institute, where his work has involved defending “bullied teachers”.