Group demands halt to public School Board prayers
Board has already altered prayer procedure
Spurred by a local resident who complained about religious language being used in a resolution concerning a family member, the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) first contacted the St. Charles Parish School Board on June 11 asking that they cease using the phrase “Whereas almighty God” in the beginning of resolutions. They also asked that the School Board discontinue the practice of saying prayers before their meetings.
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 now notify the public before the prayer begins so that anyone can leave the room should they choose not to participate.
Following the School Board’s most recent meeting on Aug. 6, Sam Grover, staff attorney with FFRF, said his organization received a complaint from another community member concerning a prayer held prior to the meeting.
“This revised prayer practice still creates an air of official government endorsement of a religious message. This complainant was dismayed to discover that the most recent ‘moment of reflection,’ given by a student, turned out to be a Christian prayer,” Grover wrote in a letter to the School Board.
But that moment of reflection is both traditional and important in setting a tone of gravity and solemnity for the proceedings and business that come before the board, according to a joint statement issued by the school system and School Board.
“The board and superintendent further believe that this period of reflection is entirely consistent both with the Constitution, which we are sworn to uphold, and with the values of the community we serve. We will therefore continue this practice,” the statement read.
The school system said that anyone who chooses not to attend the moment of reflection can wait outside the meeting room or may sit in the meeting room without participating.
However, merely posting a disclaimer and allowing time for those who may be offended to leave the room is not enough, Grover said.
“Posting a disclaimer does not adequately separate the board from the religious remarks made at its meetings. The practice, as a whole, remains under the board’s control,” he said.
Grover also said holding an open prayer in conjunction with a governmental activity serves to alienate those who may not hold the same religious beliefs as those conducting the meeting. He added that anyone who leaves the room before the meeting signals themselves out as a non-believer.
“There is real fear of hostility toward the non-religious in St. Charles Parish,” Grover wrote.
He said the new School Board policy sends the message that anyone who does not believe in public prayer is an outsider and not a full member of the community.
In response, school officials said that those who attend board meetings are allowed to enter and exit at will without fear of being ostracized, ridiculed or identified as someone not sharing beliefs about God, religion or non-religion.
“The disclaimer we have provided makes the public aware that we may or may not have a volunteer read a privately drafted moment of reflection prior to the start of the board meeting and that the reflection may or may not have religious and/or secular content. This, in no way, forces anyone to ‘out’ themselves,” the school system’s statement said.
While there are legal precedents in place that allow for prayer in legislative settings, Grover said other judges ruling on cases directly related to prayer before school board meetings have pointed out the practice is unconstitutional.
“The board’s duties are inextricably linked to the public school system, a system that the Supreme Court has consistently protected from government sanctioned prayer practices. The board’s revised prayer practice would be illegal in a classroom, and thus it remains illegal in the context of the board, which is integral to the public school system,” he said. “We wish to reiterate that holding public prayer at the start of board meetings is an exclusionary and divisive practice. All board members are free to pray on their time.”
St. Charles Parish Public Schools countered by saying their actions are legal, just and in the best interest of creating a solemn, calm and cooperative atmosphere.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation has threatened to file a lawsuit against the school system if the prayer is not halted.
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