The Freedom From Religion Foundation is continuing its objection to a California school board's practice of starting its meetings with an invocation.
The Orange County Board of Education has a tradition of beginning each meeting with an invocation. It allows interested people to request to deliver the invocation and has set up guidelines.
It is beyond the scope of a public school board to schedule or conduct prayer as part of its meetings, FFRF asserts. FFRF recently won a victory (FFRF et al v. Chino Valley School District Board of Education) in California over this very violation, with a federal court declaring the practice unconstitutional and awarding FFRF $200,000 in costs and attorney fees. Other federal courts have also similarly struck down the practice. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway that permits sectarian prayers at legislative meetings is not applicable because public school boards are not deliberative legislative bodies. In addition, there is no "historical precedent" or an "unambiguous and unbroken history" of prayers at school board meetings. Most important, school board members should be leading by example in upholding 65 years of firm Supreme Court precedent barring divisive religious worship from public schools.
"It is coercive, embarrassing and intimidating for nonreligious citizens to be making a show of their nonbelief (by not rising or praying) or else to display deference toward a religious sentiment in which they do not believe, but their school board members clearly do," FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to the Orange County Board of Education last month. "Board members should not be promoting religion by including prayer in meetings."
FFRF emphasized that this sort of governmental endorsement of religion excludes the 23 percent of Americans who are nonreligious. Board members are instead free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way.
FFRF also objects to the posting of "In God We Trust" in the school board meeting chambers, as well as the board's passing of several religious resolutions. Past resolutions have honored the National Day of Prayer, an annual Christian event, and Easter. "Christians and Christianity have contributed greatly to the development of Orange County from the time of Junipero Serra to today," the Easter resolution states. The board has not passed any resolutions honoring any other religious holidays.
FFRF's reasoning has so far not moved the Orange County Board of Education. The organization has learned that the invocation practice will probably be continued at the next board meeting on Oct. 5. It is asking that the board immediately refrain from scheduling such invocations at future meetings and uphold the rights of conscience embodied in the First Amendment and recently reaffirmed by a California federal court's decision in FFRF's favor.
"The Orange County Board of Education can see in California itself the consequences of disobeying the Constitution," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "School boards exist to oversee secular education, not indoctrination of children."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nationwide nonprofit organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with more than 23,000 nonreligious members across the country, including 3,000-plus in California.