Judge Biery's 'non-Kumbaya' moment

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On Monday Chief U.S. District Judge Fred Biery again struck comedic gold in the contentious Medina Valley prayer-in-school case.

In an order filed Monday titled the “Non-Kumbaya Order: The Homo Sapien Saga Continues," Biery orders Medina Valley school officials to apologize for disparaging remarks they've made over the past month about a family that sued the district last year, adding his own thoughts on why "silence is golden."

In May Biery granted a temporary restraining order filed by an agnostic family at Medina Valley that claimed prayer in the invocation and benediction at their son's graduation excluded their beliefs and violated their constitutional rights – Biery's order included barring Medina Valley seniors from asking the audience to join them in prayer or ending their remarks at the podium with “amen.” Biery caught predictable hellfire from the likes of Gov. Rick Perry and GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, who called Biery “an anti-religious dictatorial bigot.” State AG Greg Abbott stepped in to help the district fight the case, and Biery's order was eventually overturned by a federal appeals court.

In accordance with a settlement approved last month the district can't make prayer an official part of graduation ceremonies, though student speakers can still pray during their remarks at the podium. (In approving last month's settlement, Biery shot back at critics with a few good burns of his own). Also contained in the settlement was a non-disparagement provision: “School District Personnel will not disparage the Plaintiffs.”

Biery's latest order, filed Monday in court, chides Medina Valley Superintendent James Stansberry and high school band director Keith Riley for breaking that non-disparagement provision. Hours after the court approved the settlement, Stansberry gave an interview to KSAT saying, “It is a witch-hunt – [t]hat's all this has been.” Stansberry also wrongly told the station “they wanted our teachers to stop wearing crosses.” Riley took to Facebook to call former student Corwyn Schultz, whose family filed the lawsuit, a liar.

In the order Biery says he won't hold the school officials in contempt of court, as requested by the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the D.C.-based group that filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Schultz family. He then goes on to reference “six lawyers who paid a dear price and lost their law licenses for, among other things, talking too much.” Among them are President Nixon, who was disbarred when recorded conversations showed him obstructing the FBI investigation into Watergate, and President Clinton, whose law license was suspended for five years when a federal court called his deposition testimony in the Monica Lewinsky scandal false, misleading, and evasive.

Biery continues that in his 33 years as a judge, he can recall only four other times he's threatened or imposed sanctions against parties or lawyers for “speaking words better left unspoken." One was a young man who spent three days in jail after dropping the F-bomb in court. Another was a juror threatened with jail time for demanding he be paid $100 per hour for his service. Our personal favorite: “Two usually gentlemanly lawyers continued to pick at each other verbally. The Court threatened to have the United States Marshals take the two attorneys in front of the Alamo and be required to kiss each other on the lips. They quickly apologized and the unprofessional verbal sparring ceased.”

Biery orders the school district employees to sign a statement of apology within 10 days (he also included instructions for the plaintiffs to sign their own statement formally accepting the apology), before saying:

“The court does not expect the parties to hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya' around a campfire beside the Medina River. Nor does the court expect the respondents to engage in a public spectacle of self-flaggellation for communicating words better left unsaid. Moreover, the court does not expect plaintiffs to become Traditional Christians, though the court suggests plaintiffs might follow the moral and civility lessons of Matthew 5:39 ('if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also') and a portion of 'Essay on Criticism' ('to err is human; to forgive, divine').”

And Biery caps the order with this bit of advice:

“[T]he Court reminds the parties of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution which provides in part that “no person shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” While it is invoked for criminal prosecutions, its underlying premise is instructive for Homo sapien relationships in general: Trouble dos not come from words unspoken, particularly in this age of e-mails, tweets, cameras and recorders.”

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