Stop praying during official meetings, FFRF asks Utah school board

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A Utah school board needs to cease its unconstitutional practice of delivering a prayer during its meetings, insists the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

FFRF received an email in October in response to a letter it had sent in May to the Washington County School District informing the national state/church watchdog that the school board had adjusted its past practice of delivering a prayer to open its meetings. Despite this “adjustment,” the board opened its November meeting with a scheduled prayer. The prayer was listed as a “reverence” in the agenda and was given by board member Kelly Blake:

Our Heavenly Father, we are grateful to gather here as school board members and as administration to discuss the needs of our students, and our faculty, and our teachers. We are grateful for the opportunity to serve. We are thankful for the opportunity to be in school and in person so that our children can be better educated. We pray that Thy healing impulse will be upon all those that are suffering and that are sick at this time. Bless those that are high in need. Also that Thou will bless them as they go forward. Bless us in our decisions we make today that we will be blessed with wisdom and be able to make wise decisions on everyone’s behalf that we have responsibility for. We are grateful for the blessings of this free land and we pray for these things this day in the name of Thy Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

It is beyond the scope of a public school board to schedule or conduct prayer as part of its meetings, FFRF reminds the school district. Referring to the prayer as a “reverence” does not make it legal. This practice violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

“In Chino Valley, decided after Town of Greece v. Galloway, the court distinguished the Chino Valley School Board from the deliberative legislative bodies considered in Marsh and Galloway and held that the board’s prayer practice must be analyzed as a school prayer case,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to Washington County School District Superintendent Larry Bergeson, referring to a case that FFRF won a couple of years ago. “The court found that ‘the nature of the audience at the Chino Valley Board meetings, and the nature of its relationship with the governmental entity making policy, are very different from those within the Marsh-Greece legislative-prayer tradition.’”

If the board continues to pray, it could subject the school district to unnecessary liability and potential financial strain, FFRF emphasizes. When FFRF secured a court order against the Chino Valley School Board regarding its school board prayers, the court ordered the district to pay more than $200,000 in plaintiffs’ attorney fees and costs. After appeal, the court ordered the district to pay an additional $75,000 for plaintiffs’ attorney fees and costs associated with the appeal — for a total of more than a quarter million dollars.

FFRF asks that the Washington County School District immediately refrain from scheduling and conducting prayers as part of school board meetings to uphold the rights of conscience embodied in our First Amendment, starting with the meeting scheduled for the evening of Tuesday, Dec. 8.

“Whether you call it a prayer or a ‘reverence,’ it is still unconstitutional,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “School board members should realize that a continuation of this practice is highly alienating and disrespectful to members of minority faiths and nonbelievers in their community.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 33,000 members across the country, including hundreds of members in Utah. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

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 the Secular Coalition for America

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