The Freedom From Religion Foundation has persuaded an Indiana school district to cease opening school board meetings with prayer.
A concerned district community member contacted the national state/church watchdog to report that the Griffith Public Schools Board of Trustees opened each of its meetings with a prayer led by a member of the board or a guest, including clergy. For example, Pastor Freda Scales with Griffith Lutheran was invited to lead the opening prayer during the January 2021 regular board meeting and John Dudlicek, second vice president of the board, led the opening prayer during the November 2020 special board meeting. These prayers were invariably Christian in nature.
The school board is an essential part of the public school system, FFRF pointed out.
“Students, parents, and district employees have the right — and often have reason — to participate in school board meetings,” FFRF Legal Fellow Joseph McDonald wrote to School Board President Kathy Ruesken. “While those in the religious majority may view opening prayers as striking an appropriately solemn tone to mark the start of a meeting, the prayers have the opposite effect for those who do not hold the same religious beliefs as the prayer giver.”
The board was engaging in a governmental endorsement of Christianity that excludes the 30 percent of Americans who are non-Christian and are largely nonreligious, FFRF added. Nationally, among millennials and younger Americans — who make up the entirety of the nation’s student population and most students’ parents — about 46 percent are non-Christian, either practicing no religion at all or a minority religion. Including prayer at meetings unnecessarily ostracized this significant, growing portion of the district’s community.
FFRF’s well-reasoned missive had an impact.
“As a reaction to court opinions and a letter from that watchdog group, the board unanimously eliminated the prayer in favor of being neutral with a moment of silence so people can contemplate whatever they wish,” reports the local newspaper. “The letter was written by FFRF representative Joseph McDonald.”
In an email to McDonald, the school board president acknowledged FFRF’s role in the policy change.
“Regarding the letter that I received from Mr. Joseph McDonald, I would like to state that the trustees of the Griffith School Board have reviewed the contents,” Ruesken stated. “We have concluded that it would be in the best interest of the school district to offer up a moment of silence in lieu of prayer.”
FFRF is always delighted when a school board votes to affirm the First Amendment and freedom of conscience.
“We want to impress on everyone that this isn’t a Christian country,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “When school boards realize this, it makes all our work worth its while.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 34,000 members across the country, including nearly 500 members in Indiana. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.