Two school boards end prayers after let­ters sent

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - BILL BOW­DEN

Two school boards in north­ern Arkansas have stopped pray­ing be­fore meet­ings — at least for the time be­ing.

The boards, in Spring­dale and Har­ri­son, are re­search­ing the le­gal­ity of the pub­lic prayers be­fore mak­ing a fi­nal de­ci­sion.

The Free­dom From Re­li­gion Foun­da­tion in Madi­son, Wis., sent a let­ter to school boards in Spring­dale on Dec. 29 and Har­ri­son on March 6 telling them the pub­lic prayers vi­o­lated the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion.

“We ask that you im­me­di­ately re­frain from

sched­ul­ing prayers as part of fu­ture school board meet­ings to up­hold the rights of con­science em­bod­ied in our First Amend­ment,” Pa­trick El­liott, staff at­tor­ney for the foun­da­tion, wrote in both let­ters.

The foun­da­tion mon­i­tors is­sues re­gard­ing sep­a­ra­tion of church and state.

El­liott said the let­ters were sent after com­plaints were re­ceived re­gard­ing meet­ings of both school boards.

“It is beyond the scope of a pub­lic school board to sched­ule or con­duct prayer as part of its meet­ings,” El­liott wrote in the let­ters. “If the board con­tin­ues to pray, it will sub­ject the school dis­trict to un­nec­es­sary li­a­bil­ity and po­ten­tial fi­nan­cial strain.”

Forc­ing peo­ple who aren’t re­li­gious to par­tic­i­pate in the prayer rit­ual can be in­tim­i­dat­ing, El­liott wrote.

“It is co­er­cive, em­bar­rass­ing and in­tim­i­dat­ing for non­re­li­gious ci­ti­zens to be re­quired to make a pub­lic show­ing of their non­be­lief (by not ris­ing or pray­ing) or else to dis­play def­er­ence to­ward a re­li­gious sen­ti­ment in which they do not be­lieve, but which their school board mem­bers clearly do,” ac­cord­ing to the let­ters.

The pub­lic prayers amount to a gov­ern­men­tal en­dorse­ment of re­li­gion, and 23 per­cent of Amer­i­cans iden­tify as non­re­li­gious, ac­cord­ing to the let­ters.

Jon Burn­side, pres­i­dent of the Har­ri­son Board of Ed­u­ca­tion, brought the is­sue up at Thurs­day’s board meet­ing. He said the board wasn’t go­ing to have a prayer that night and he wanted the crowd to know why.

“I just chose at that point in time to not pray that night be­cause I felt that was the pru­dent thing to do to al­low us some time to wrap our thoughts around all of the ram­i­fi­ca­tions that might hap­pen,” Burn­side said. “The big­gest con­cern I have is the dis­trict. And I don’t want to drag the dis­trict through a lengthy fi­nan­cial bat­tle.”

Burn­side said the is­sue will likely be dis­cussed in de­tail at the next board meet­ing April 18.

Pray­ing be­fore the school board meet­ings has been a tra­di­tion for as long as any­one in Har­ri­son can re­mem­ber.

“It looks like a very in­doc­tri­nated pro­ce­dure that has gone on for maybe 40 or 50 years,” Burn­side said.

Randy Hutchin­son, pres­i­dent of the Spring­dale School Board, said it stopped hav­ing the prayers at the end of 2016 with­out for­mally an­nounc­ing the change.

“As of right now, we’ve just sort of put it on hold,” he said. “We’re in the process of do­ing our due dili­gence to see if we have a leg to stand on, so to speak. I’m a lit­tle dis­ap­pointed that some­thing like that would come about, but it is what it is. We’re go­ing to in­ves­ti­gate and move for­ward based on what we find out.”

Hutchin­son also said he didn’t want to fi­nan­cially bur­den his school dis­trict with a pro­tracted le­gal bat­tle.

Ken­dra Clay, staff at­tor­ney for the Spring­dale School Dis­trict, said there has been no U.S. Supreme Court de­ci­sion on the le­gal­ity of pub­lic prayers be­fore school board meet­ings. Such prayers are le­gal be­fore meet­ings of leg­isla­tive boards, but not at high school grad­u­a­tion or foot­ball games.

“I don’t think that there’s a clear an­swer,” Clay said. “I don’t think we’ve reached a de­ci­sion.”

Kris­ten Gar­ner, staff at­tor­ney

for the Arkansas School Boards As­so­ci­a­tion, said Burn­side con­tacted her and she ad­vised him to con­fer with his school dis­trict’s lawyer.

“With re­spect to prayer at a school board meet­ing, I do not be­lieve that the law is as clear or de­cided,” Gar­ner said. “My ad­vice in those cases is this is some­thing they should dis­cuss in depth with their own le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tive.”

She said school board meet­ings are dif­fer­ent from com­mence­ment cer­e­monies and foot­ball games.

“There’s a dif­fer­ent anal­y­sis when you’re deal­ing with a group of adults and a cap­tive group of chil­dren,” she said. “I think they are dis­tin­guish­able and you would not cite the same cases.”

Burn­side said he has been con­fer­ring with dif­fer­ent at­tor­neys on the is­sue.

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