Four school boards get complaint letters

FFRF contests Pennsylvania prayers

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent letters of complaint to four Pennsylvania school district boards to inform members that their prayers at meetings are unconstitutional.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent letters to the Octorara Area School Board in Atglen, the Eastern Lancaster County School Board in New Holland, the Big Spring School Board in Newville and the Greencastle-Antrim School Board in Greencastle. In all instances, a local complainant had alerted FFRF to the violations.

FFRF is a national nonprofit organization with over 18,500 members, including over 600 in Pennsylvania.

"It is beyond the scope of a public school board to schedule prayer as part of its scheduled meetings," Markert noted, citing numerous court cases, including the 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals' 2011 ruling in Doe v. Indian River School. "Federal courts have struck down school board practices that include this religious ritual." 

The 3rd Circuit, which encompasses Pennsylvania, emphasized in Doe v. Indian River that school board prayer is analogous to other school prayer cases when it comes to protecting children from the coercion of school-sponsored prayer, which is heightened in the context of public schools.

Markert told the boards that the prayers they choose not only demonstrate their endorsement of and preference for religion over nonreligion, but also Christianity over all other religious faiths. (The Octorara board regularly recites the Lord's Prayer.)

"Prayer at public school board meetings is unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive," Markert said. "Calling upon board members, as well as parents and students of the school, to pray is coercive, embarrassing and beyond the scope of our secular school system.

"Board members are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way. The school board, however, ought not to lend its power and prestige to religion, amounting to a governmental endorsement of religion that excludes the 15 percent or more of the U.S. population that is nonreligious, including nearly 1.5 million Pennsylvanians (American Religious Identification Survey, 2008)."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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FFRF is a member of Atheist Alliance International.