Saturday, November 22nd, 2014

Texas order and Newt Gingrich's claim

Newt Gingrich made reference to a Texas judge's order in his victory speech after the 2012 South Carolina GOP presidential primary (PBS video).

U.S. District Judge Fred Biery this week issued a "kumbaya" order in connection with the recent settlement of a dispute about prayer at a high-school graduation ceremony. The move reminded us of a fact-check we completed of a statement by Newt Gingrich about the same case.

As recapped by Austin American-Statesman columnist Ken Herman, Biery reacted to comments by an official from the Medina Valley school district after the settlement of a suit by an agnostic family challenging religious aspects of Medina Valley High School's graduation. Parties in the lawsuit worked out an agreement under which employees in the San Antonio-area school district are barred from joining students in prayer or inviting people to pray. Also, religious symbols are barred from school grounds. Students can offer prayers at events but only if introduced as "student remarks."

In his March 19, 2012, order, Herman reports, Biery wrote that James Stansberry, the district's superintendent, said in a TV interview after the settlement that the lawsuit was "a witch hunt." Biery also wrote that school officials misconstrued the lawsuit by erroneously saying the plaintiffs wanted to ban teachers from wearing crosses.

Biery also isn't happy that a school official, post-settlement, posted a Facebook comment calling the plaintiff a liar and "liked" a comment from someone who sarcastically wrote, "There should be a disclaimer after a prayer that says, ‘No atheists or anti-religious activities were harmed in the recitation of this prayer.'"

And how does Gingrich fit in?

As we noted in a Feb. 12, 2012, Truth-O-Meter article, Gingrich had mentioned Biery on the stump when arguing that the legislative and executive branches of government should remove judges perceived as abusing their power and acting out of sync with the nation’s culture.

After winning the South Carolina Republican presidential primary, Gingrich urged voters to check out a position paper on his campaign website about "the balance of power, putting the judiciary back in its proper role and eliminating dictatorial religious bigots such as Judge Biery in San Antonio, who issued a ruling that … not only could the students not pray at their graduation, if they used the word ‘benediction,’ the word ‘invocation,’ the word ‘God,’ asked the audience to stand or asked for a moment of silence, he would put the superintendent in jail."

We sorted through Gingrich’s summary, rating it Half True.

The punch line of the former House speaker’s claim — that the Texas order said the superintendent would be jailed if his ruling was violated — overstates things. The order lists incarceration or "other sanctions" as possible penalties, though nothing as a certainty, and doesn’t specify the superintendent as potential inmate. Also, the punishment language appears to have been standard.