Big Spring School Board will discontinue its long-standing practice of starting its public meetings with a spoken prayer.
Board President Wilbur Wolf Jr. announced Tuesday that prayer will be removed from future meeting agendas to avoid the potential cost of legal action against the board and Big Spring School District.
In mid-August, the district received letters from both the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Anti-Defamation League, Superintendent Rich Fry said.
Fry explained how each letter cited case law in which the courts have ruled it unconstitutional for school board members to offer prayer at public meetings.
While neither letter threatened a lawsuit, both asked the district to respond in
writing and the Anti-Defamation League specifically urged board members to end the practice, Fry said.
‘The prudent thing’
“After consultation with the district solicitor, it became apparent the district and its taxpayers would incur significant legal costs defending its practice should the foundation or another group file suit against the district,” Wolf said in a statement.
He added that defending the practice of board prayer would require the district to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court and, if unsuccessful, pay the legal fees of the opposing side. Rather than risk financial hardship, the district wrote a response letter advising the Foundation that a prayer will no longer be listed as part of meeting agendas.
“We regret having to make this decision, but feel it is the prudent thing to do,” Wolf said. “We just think it is unfortunate because it did not appear that anybody local was concerned about what we had done.”
There are too many other challenges the school board is dealing with in providing a quality education, Wolf added. “Diverting energy at this time would not be in the best interests of the children.”
Wolf speculated the foundation became aware of the board’s practice of prayer at meetings as a result of a July 31 article in The Sentinel.
However, FFRF staff attorney Rebecca Markert said a local resident affiliated with both the foundation and the Pennsylvania Non-Believers Association notified foundation staff about the board practice. A call to the Anti-Defamation League was not returned by press time.
“We are a membership association of atheists and agnostics organized to protect the Constitutional principle of separation of church and state and to educate the public on matters of non-theism,” she explained. Markert added the foundation has members in every state including more than 650 in Pennsylvania.
She confirmed Tuesday that the foundation sent a letter to Big Spring School District on Aug. 17, but has yet to receive the response letter from the school board.
‘Running ... through the court’
The Sentinel reported in July that vocalized prayer before a school board meeting is unconstitutional based on federal case law and the opinions of two law professors interviewed for the story.
Professors Alan Garfield and Thomas Place said that having a prayer before a meeting is inconsistent with an August 2011 opinion handed down by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Pennsylvania.
In Jane Doe vs. Indian River School District, the Third Circuit concluded that the presence of students at public meetings in a school setting makes the practice of a spoken prayer by a school board member unconstitutional, according to Place, a Dickinson School of Law professor.
“Children are young, impressionable,” explained Garfield, a professor with Widener University School of Law. “Teachers and other school leaders are authority figures they look up to. Kids are subjected to peer pressure. They are going to feel coerced to pray and to participate in a religion.”
It is more common for the foundation to receive complaints of prayer before a city council or a county board than prayer before a school board meeting, Markert said. “Just recently we’re getting more school board complaints.”
She attributes this increase in complaints to a growing awareness of the Doe vs. Indian River decision and its implications for school board members who continue to offer prayer at public meetings.
Aside from Big Spring, the foundation sent out letters on Aug. 17 to school boards representing Eastern Lancaster County School District, Greencastle-Antrim School District and Octorara Area School District in Chester County.
Most of the districts contacted end up complying right away with the case law, Markert said. She explained how the one exception, Cornwall Lebanon School District, refused at first because they wanted to see the outcome in the Doe vs. Indian River case.
The FFRF first contacted Cornwall Lebanon in September 2010, Markert said. “We mentioned how the case was running its way through the court.”
When the foundation sent Cornwall Lebanon a follow-up letter in November 2011, the district complied.
Fry said the Sentinel article prompted the Big Spring School Board to meet and discuss the legality of prayer at public meetings during an executive session held earlier in August.
“A moment of silence?”
Fry explained how the board agenda itself is set by Board President Wolf and Vice-President William Swanson working in cooperation with Fry and district administrators. The decision was made late last week not to include prayer on the Sept. 4 agenda.
In July, The Sentinel reported that a stronger case can be made for allowing school boards to include a moment of silence on their agendas as an alternative to a vocalized prayer made before an audience of individuals who may or may not be religious.
A survey of district websites and online agendas showed that Mechanicsburg area and Susquenita school districts include time set aside for “silent meditation” or a “moment of silence.”
School boards can go that route as long as the time allocated does not have religious overtones, Markert said.
“The board is looking at different avenues to incorporate an opportunity for folks to express themselves in that manner,” Fry said Tuesday. He added a moment of silence may be the subject of a future Big Spring School Board agenda, but not on Sept. 4.
Case law does allow individuals to recite prayer as part of the public comment period of a board meeting. An exception to this would be school board members because they would still be seen as government representatives of the school district, Markert said.
The Establishment Clause has been interpreted by the court to mean the government should not do things that endorse religion over non-religion or one religion over another, Garfield said.
“It would be hard for school board members to divorce themselves from that,” Markert said. “It would be problematic.”
Posted earlier on Cumberlink:
Big Spring School Board President Wilbur Wolf Jr. announced Tuesday that the board will drop its prayer portion during its public meetings.
In a letter to The Sentinel, Wolf said the school board recently received a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which challenged the prayer listed on the school boards’ agendas. The letter cited several cases in which courts have declared prayer as part of public meeting agendas to be unconstitutional, according to Wolf.
Wolf added that after consulting with the district solicitor, it became apparent that the district and its taxpayers would incur significant legal costs defending its practice, should the foundation or another group file suit against the district.
“So, rather than risk the financial hardship that may result from legal action against the board and school district, the Board of School Directors has advised the Freedom From Religion Foundation that a prayer will no longer be listed a part of meeting agendas,” Wolf said in the letter. “As president of the Big Spring Board of School Directors we regret having to make this decision but feel it is the prudent thing to do.”
For more on this story, check out the print and online edition of The Sentinel on Wednesday.