The Freedom From Religion Foundation has educated an Ohio school board about the importance of adhering to the country’s secular constitution.
A concerned parent had informed FFRF that the Canton Board of Education opened each board meeting with prayer, usually led by the board president or another board member. The prayers frequently began with “Dear God” or “Dear Lord,” and ended with “amen,” “in Jesus’ name,” or “in Christ’s name.” The board president also regularly directed the audience to stand in recognition of the prayer, an audience that often included parents, students and the general public.
It is beyond the scope of a public school board to schedule or conduct prayer as part of its meetings, FFRF informed the Canton School Board. This practice violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
“In its Coles decision, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals noted that the Cleveland Board of Education had a practice very similar to Canton’s that ran afoul of the Constitution,” FFRF Legal Fellow Joseph McDonald wrote to Canton School Board President Scott Hamilton. “Like your meetings, the board in Cleveland began each meeting with prayer, had student representatives, regularly used board meetings to give special recognition to exceptional students, and generally served as a public forum for parents and students to voice their concerns.”
A public school board is an essential part of the public school system, FFRF underlined. The issues discussed and decisions made at board meetings are wholly school-related, affecting the daily lives of district students and parents. As the 6th Circuit observed in Coles, “Although meetings of the school board might be of a ‘different variety’ than other school-related activities, the fact remains that they are part of the same ‘class’ as those other activities in that they take place on school property and are inextricably intertwined with the public school system.”
Since it is unconstitutional for the board to institute prayers at its meetings, FFRF therefore requested that the Canton Board of Education immediately refrain from scheduling prayers as part of school board meetings.
FFRF’s well-reasoned and fact-filled letter proved to be educationally enlightening.
“The Canton Local School Board will no longer begin its meetings with a prayer,” states an article in the local paper (which contains the main points that FFRF outlined in its letter). “Board President Scott Hamilton said Tuesday that the board made the decision to discontinue its longstanding practice of invocation after reviewing the laws and court cases surrounding the issue of prayer at school board meetings. A letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation on July 23 prompted the review.”
FFRF, a state/church watchdog, is always delighted to be instructing folks about constitutional principles.
“We commend the board for following the case law and dropping prayer, which excludes and proselytizes,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It’s the duty of the board to model for students and the community the mission of the public school system, which is to educate, not to indoctrinate.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 35,000 members and several chapters across the country, including nearly 1,000 members and a local chapter (the Northern Ohio Freethought Society) in Ohio. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and to educate the public on matters related to nontheism.