Ted Cruz recycles Newt Gingrich's debunked story about teen threatened with jail for praying
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaking at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-TX) story about a Texas teen threatened by her school for wanting to pray is not just untrue -- it was already used by a previous Republican presidential candidate, Think Progress reported.

"This case has been catnip for presidential candidates for some time," said Greg Lipper, a lawyer for Americans United for Separation of Church & State. "It makes a superficially appealing talking point if you're willing to make up things. It's understandable that they go out of their way to say we're threatening to send students to jail if they say 'Jesus.' That sounds better than what they actually want, which is government-sponsored Christian prayer."

The Tea Party senator, who placed first among GOP candidates in a recent Iowa poll, made reference on Monday to Angela Hildenbrand, who added herself as a defendant in a 2011 lawsuit filed by a Medina Valley High School classmate's family against the school district seeking to stop graduation speakers from leading public prayers and invocations during the ceremony.

A district court judge ruled that speakers could make "religious references" during their remarks, but not deliver prayers. Hildenbrand added herself to the case after it was sent to an appeals court. That court reversed the original decision, stating that the prayers were led by students and not directed by school officials. Hildenbrand subsequently led a prayer during the school's graduation ceremony that June.

Before the appeal court's ruling, then-GOP candidate Newt Gingrich began referencing Hildenbrand during some of his speeches, calling for the dismissal of Federal Judge Fred Biery, who made the original ruling.

"We need to reset the judiciary, explain to them the limits of the American Constitution and prove to them that judges appointed for life cannot be dictators and they cannot threaten our children with jail for saying the word 'prayer,'" the former House Speaker said at the time.

Similarly, Cruz wondered aloud on Monday what was happening with the country when "we're threatening teenage girls with going to jail if they say the name of Jesus."

But in reality, Lipper said, Hildenbrand was never in any danger of facing jail time.

"There was a reference in the preliminary injunction to enforcement mechanisms, but that was aimed at the school district and not the students," he said. "There was no threat of any student getting punished by the court, let alone getting sent to jail."

Hildenbrand also appeared onstage with Cruz during a rally in South Carolina last month after describing her as a "targeted American of faith."