Lawsuit threatened if School Board continues prayer
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking the St. Charles Parish School Board to stop a public prayer before their meetings because they say it violates the constitution.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) recently sent a letter to School Board officials requesting that they no longer include the phrase “Whereas almighty God…” in the beginning of each of the School Board’s resolutions and stop beginning meetings with a public prayer, which the group says violates the constitution.
“It is beyond the scope of a public school board to schedule prayer or pass resolutions invoking ‘Almighty God’ as part of its regular meetings. Federal courts have struck down school board practices that include this religious ritual,” the letter reads.
In response, the School Board amended their resolutions to remove the phrase “Whereas almighty God…”, but have decided to maintain the tradition of saying a prayer before every meeting with the caveat that they will notify the public before the prayer begins so that anyone can leave the room should they choose not to participate.
“While the board and superintendent are committed to upholding the law, we believe strongly that moments of reflection are not only necessary, but are consistent with the values of the community we serve,” Jay Robichaux, president of the St. Charles Parish School Board, said. “Therefore we will continue this practice (of holding prayer) prior to the official start of the board meeting.”
By continuing the prayer, Robichaux doesn’t feel that the School Board is in conflict with the constitution.
“We don’t think we are breaking the law,” he said. “We did adjust, but we basically feel like we are in compliance with the law.”
Sam Grover, staff attorney with FFRF, disagrees.
“We have not yet reviewed the policy as a legal staff, but my off the cuff impression is that as long as they are continuing this practice of praying before meetings they are still in violation of the constitution,” he said.
Grover said by instituting prayer and invoking religion, the School Board is forcing one religion, the Christian religion, to be recognized above all others, which is in violation of the constitution.
“Because religion is a choice best left to the private sphere, each individual family has the constitutional right to bring up their children in the religion or non-religion of their choice. When governmental entities get entangled in that, they violate that trust,” he said.
However, Robichaux called into question the provenance of the FFRF.
“It’s not local people, it is people outside of our district and our state that have a problem that doesn’t pertain to them,” he said.
Despite being located in Wisconsin, Grover said FFRF was actually contacted by a resident from St. Charles Parish who objected to religious aspects of the School Board’s meetings.
Despite there only being one person in the community raising an objection to the School Board’s policies regarding religion, Grover said the actions they are taking will undoubtedly benefit others who are hesitant to speak up.
“When you have a religiously invasive community, it can be very challenging for a minority to speak up so that is the service we provide at FFRF,” he said.
Although they may be in disagreement with the new policy regarding the pre-meeting prayer, Grover said he feels St. Charles Parish Public Schools is handling the issue well.
“The St. Charles Parish School Board has been pretty reasonable. It is obvious to us they are trying to make this right,” he said. “We don’t think they are there yet, but it’s obvious they care about making their community inviting for people of all religious and non-religious beliefs.”
However, Grover said there is still a possibility for a lawsuit should FFRF deem the continued prayer to be in violation of citizen’s rights.
“The public School Board has a duty to uphold the constitution, and the best way to do that is to avoid a pre-meeting prayer,” he said.
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