Two school boards end prayers after letters sent
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.