No prayers at meetings, FFRF insists to a Va. school board

Nothing Fails Like Prayer

Stop imposing your religion on the public, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is requesting of a Virginia school board.

A concerned local resident has informed the state/church watchdog that the Russell County School Board begins each of its meetings with a prayer, confirmed by the board’s agendas. The most recent board meeting on July 15 started with a prayer delivered “in the precious name of Jesus.”

The Supreme Court has consistently struck down prayers offered at school-sponsored events, FFRF reminds the school board.

“It is beyond the scope of a public school board to schedule or conduct prayer as part of its meetings,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to Russell County School Board Chair Cynthia Compton. “This practice violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

In Indian River School District (2011), the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals emphasized that school board prayer is analogous to other school prayer cases when it comes to protecting children from the coercion of school-sponsored prayer. In the most recent case striking down a school board’s prayer practice, a case that FFRF won, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed that Establishment Clause concerns are heightened in the context of public schools “because children and adolescents are just beginning to develop their own belief systems, and because they absorb the lessons of adults as to what beliefs are appropriate or right.” The district had to pay a total of more than a quarter million dollars in plaintiffs’ attorney fees and costs.

Students and parents have the right — and often reason — to participate in school board meetings, FFRF underlines. It is coercive, embarrassing and intimidating for nonreligious citizens to be required to make a public showing of their nonbelief (by not participating) or else to display deference toward a religious sentiment in which they do not believe, but which their school board members clearly do. Nonreligious Americans make up the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population by religious identification — 35 percent of Americans are non-Christians, and this includes the more than one in four Americans who now identify as religiously unaffiliated.

All this is why FFRF is insisting that the Russell County School Board immediately refrain from scheduling prayers as part of future school board meetings.

“There exists no good reason for board members to be engaging in prayers at the start of official meetings of a secular public school system,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Public schools and school boards exist to educate, not to indoctrinate.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 35,000 members across the country, including over 800 members in Virginia. Our 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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