School prayer

Big Spring to drop school prayer from school board meeting

2012-08-28T08:59:00Z 2012-08-28T22:07:57Z Big Spring to drop school prayer from school board meetingJoseph Cress, The Sentinel The Sentinel
August 28, 2012 8:59 am  • 

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.

Copyright 2015 The Sentinel. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(36) Comments

  1. CarlisleGirl
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    CarlisleGirl - August 31, 2012 8:34 am
    No, we're NOT a Christian nation, nor should you want it to be. We are founded upon freedom of religion. Our history has been one of welcoming all; and this mix, nearly unique in the world, is our strength.
    To take your words a little differently, "For those of you who want prayer "Pray silently." This is actual justice, not forcing anything on anybody, again a basic tenet of the American idea: FREEDOM.
    I'm a committed Christian, but I want our public meetings prayer-free. Kudos to Big Spring.
  2. Carlislejoe
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    Carlislejoe - August 30, 2012 6:53 pm
    I just read the constitution (rather quickly I admit) and did not see any reference to a Christian nation or god. Please state the section you are referring to. Article VI does state that no religious test shall be required as a qualification To any office or public trust. Doesn't really sound like an endorsement of any one religion, Christian or otherwise.
  3. RaySampsin
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    RaySampsin - August 30, 2012 6:33 pm
    Well said, Scooter.
  4. Sokrates
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    Sokrates - August 30, 2012 5:52 pm
    Why not gather outside five minutes early, have the prayer, then go in and start the meeting?
  5. Scooter227
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    Scooter227 - August 30, 2012 10:52 am
    I live in the district, but have no kids which I am assuming that most of you do in the district and that's why there is an issue. Just a thought maybe we should be more concern of the education there then prayer. Not saying that I am against it, but its a board meeting I just would be more worried about how they are educating our children then if they are having prayers.
  6. queenvicki
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    queenvicki - August 30, 2012 10:33 am
    Where is the justice? You are now forcing those of us who want prayer to be subjected to a meeting where there is no prayer? This country was founded on God! We are a Christian Nation!! Read the Constitution!!
    For those of you who do not want to hear prayer "Cover your ears". Most of you will be in a situation where you call upon God! He will be there for you even though you turn your back on Him now!
  7. Gene Garman
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    Gene Garman - August 30, 2012 7:32 am
    "Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion and Government in the Constitution of the United States, the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history," James Madison, Father of the Constitution, William and Mary Quarterly, 3:555, c. 1817. Please, also read Matthew 6:5-6, and note the word "church" is not in the Constitution. The Religion Commandments in the Constitution:
  8. The GreenMarauder
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    The GreenMarauder - August 29, 2012 9:50 pm
    Maybe its a good time to have a shake up on the school board.
  9. eels2010
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    eels2010 - August 29, 2012 3:44 pm
    Dear Christians, you can't always get your way. You are very free to pray and practice your religion the way you see fit. But do not expect the entire world to bow down to your beliefs. Our society includes people of all faiths, and those who have no faith. Our society is not guided by religion. I realize this offends some of you, but it's reality. If all men are created equal, then that means no one of us is superior to the other. That can also mean no faith is superior to the other.
  10. michael
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    michael - August 29, 2012 3:32 pm
    The fools would have him censured for making hurtful comments.
  11. michael
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    michael - August 29, 2012 3:29 pm
    You won't have to worry about it, you'll have a permanent smile.
  12. TruthSeeker
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    TruthSeeker - August 29, 2012 3:10 pm
    Taxpayers don’t need to pay for school board members to congregate to practice their religion during these meetings. That’s not what they were elected to do and that's not what these meetings are for. That time is for them to conduct the school board business for which they were chosen to do by taxpayers. If you want to pray, do it on your own time.
  13. Sue
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    Sue - August 29, 2012 7:49 am
    I will be praying for each and everyone on that school board for making this decision. It is so sad to see you bow to the Devil. God once played a starring role in this nation and now the Devil has taken over. Read your Bible. If you don't recognize GOD he will not recognize you and I would rather have that lawsuit than burn in hell. This country once had brave, strong people who would stand up to adversity now all we have are a bunch of whimps who put their tails between their legs and run.
  14. jeremy13
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    jeremy13 - August 29, 2012 6:44 am
    How does a prayer establish a specific religion? Nobody is advocating a state sponsored church. Big Spring always struggled in academics and sports. Now they do not have a prayer. literally.
    BTW, every school day, my children pray the school prayer: "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country. Amen." Understanding religion and philosophy is part of a complete education.
  15. lisa0828
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    lisa0828 - August 29, 2012 1:40 am
  16. lisa0828
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    lisa0828 - August 29, 2012 1:39 am
  17. Sokrates
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    Sokrates - August 28, 2012 11:25 pm
    Let me put it another way: someday this country might have more Muslims than Christians. If that ever comes to pass I'll bet the people who support prayer in schools will have a change of heart. Those who favor majority rule over minority rights always expect to *be* the majority.
  18. Sokrates
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    Sokrates - August 28, 2012 11:21 pm
    Why should anyone have to sit in a public gov't meeting and listen to an official prayer of a religion they don't believe in? Is that a good way to build a community, by engaging in divisive and exclusionary practices? What if the prayer was Islamic, or Pagan, or Jewish? What if it were a Catholic prayer that echoed the Pope's opinion that Protestant denominations are "degenerate"? How would people feel then? Gov't should be equally open to everyone, not just followers of the majority faith.
  19. Zeldana
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    Zeldana - August 28, 2012 7:41 pm
    I am amused by the fact that our very public currency says :In God We Trust", paid to public entities in the form of very public fees for service, municipal fines, etc.. I would rather live my life beleiving there is God and die to find out HE does not exist, than to live and beleive He DOES NOT EXIST, only to FIND OUT HE DOES! I hope some nice pastor will visit the school every meeting and open the floor for anyone who woulld like to pray with him! GOD BLESS AMERICA & THE BS School DIsrict
  20. Newtville
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    Newtville - August 28, 2012 7:30 pm
    Nice----one week a Gay Club--which I did't really have a problem with, but now it's No Prayer at meetings, which if I'm right, they've been doing fo decades. And to cave without even trying to fight some outfit pushing atheism? I expected more from you than that, Mr. Wolf.
  21. vinoman
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    vinoman - August 28, 2012 7:12 pm
    ...not about Christianity. It's about a perversion that is being celebrated by the liberal democrat party.
  22. ACT
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    ACT - August 28, 2012 5:51 pm
    That's right. We're a melting pot society and the Constitution is meant to protect everyone's rights and to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority. Those who think this nation is an official Christian nation should read the Treaty of Tripoli, article 11 written under John Adam's administration and ratified when Jefferson was in office . " the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." It's not because we respect all religions.
  23. Walbot1
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    Walbot1 - August 28, 2012 5:09 pm
    We are not an nation of atheists but nor are we a nation of only Christians. You constitution experts also need to cite where it says this country is founded only on Christian law. While "separation of church and state" is not explicitly in the constitution, the concept comes from tea party favorite Jefferson & used in many of his writings. Citing Jefferson, the SCOTUS concluded that "The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable."
  24. ACT
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    ACT - August 28, 2012 3:31 pm
    I feel it's futile to argue with people who do not understand what the Constitution says. It is not against religion. Because of separation of church & state both religion and government survive and thrive. Combine the two and tempers flare. Problem is many people think Canon Law is higher than Civil Law. It's not in the United States. We have a secular Constitution and a secular government by design. Civil Laws trumps Canon Law in the US. Every time Civil Law wins in this country.
  25. Biaviian
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    Biaviian - August 28, 2012 1:26 pm
    cmblinkposter, how are they forcing it on people? Are those people required by law to listen? Are those people being held against their will and forced to listen? If they don't like it then they can simply leave during that portion, cover their ears, or not attend.
  26. linkay
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    linkay - August 28, 2012 1:21 pm
    The First Amendment (Amendment I) to the United States Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights. The amendment prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances. It does not say separation of church and state.
  27. linkay
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    linkay - August 28, 2012 1:20 pm
    you ar right and Christians need to start saying something. And yes we are to include God in all of our decisions. We are now as a country being told we can not live our faith as we normally do.
  28. linkay
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    linkay - August 28, 2012 1:16 pm
    They were not making a spectacle. They have practiced their religion this way for years. This is what you do when you live everyday and practice your faith, you include God in all your decisons. Your faith is not something you just turn off and on you live it all day long. This is how America was before the atheists and groups started to force their beliefs on us. Why don't atheists just ignore people who pray.
  29. michael
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    michael - August 28, 2012 1:11 pm
    How long did they hold the hostages? Now did they like really smear it around, or just like a little whispy kinda wavy rub in the face thing?
    Funny, you will all curse God and Christ being mentioned, and in the same breath defend to the death parts of SF with gay men walking nude, or more filth over the airwaves.
    What about the old argument of just leave the room or ignore it or don't acknowledge. Oh that's right it is what YOU want now, right?
  30. linkay
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    linkay - August 28, 2012 1:08 pm
    When are we going to say enough is enough. We are not a nation of athiests. Time to put atheists and other groups who seek to take God out of America in their place. Christians need to stand up for what is right and not accept this.These groups are leading our Country to becoming the next Sodom and Gomorrah. It is not judging the people to speak up, it is standing up so our country as a society does not change what God says is right and wrong.
  31. michael
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    michael - August 28, 2012 1:05 pm
    It says in the constitution you shall not say a prayer for those who will be making decisions and for wisdom?
    I better go re-read that.
    Now which religion was it they are establishing? Please help me, i just want to understand.
  32. linkay
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    linkay - August 28, 2012 1:02 pm
    please learn the Constitution. It says government is not to tell us we have to practice a religion of their choose. and that basically is what the government is doing, saying we all have to practice atheism in public schools. The separation of church and state is not in the Constitution, this is a lie that has been told over and over and society just starts to believe it. The law requiring them to not pray is unconstitutional and no one has questioned it.
  33. ACT
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    ACT - August 28, 2012 12:26 pm
    Why would Big Spring School Board President Wilbur Wolf Jr. and the school board "regret having to make this decision" to abide by the Constitution and not have prayers as a part of their meeting?
  34. PetesJudie
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    PetesJudie - August 28, 2012 10:32 am can't stand up for do every Sunday or is that just the one day that you believe in Him? Get a backbone....stand up for God...are you afraid to show the school district that you believe in God...and will fight for he gave his life for you.....
  35. pystil
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    pystil - August 28, 2012 10:12 am
    Good let them do it in church at home in their car and in private, but keep out of the public forum. Hopefully the Taliban will do the same, but I doubt it.
  36. cmblinkposter
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    cmblinkposter - August 28, 2012 9:37 am
    It's sad that lawsuits are required to prevent people from forcing their religion on others, but some people just cannot simply practice their religion, it seems, they have to make a spectacle of it. You have every right to say a prayer yourself, or even as a group before or after the meeting, but that doesn't shove it in everyone else's face like making it a part of the meeting so that's just not good enough, I guess.
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