The Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking the Essex County Public Schools board to stop opening its meetings with a prayer.
The board has reportedly recently begun starting its meetings with Christian prayer. In January, for instance, the prayer went, in part:
I am thankful that we’re going to have a deliberate process and debate and discuss some tough issues, and I’m thankful Your protection will be over it all and I am confident that this particular board, Father, no matter how lively the debate or how much the discussion or maybe even the difference of opinion, we will leave here unified, Father, because we’re gonna hold the fact that we’re a community and the fact that we have a whole lot more in common then we have a part as a much higher priority than anything else, Father. So I’m thankful for all of that, Father, and I pray that You bless this meeting tonight. I pray that You bless these proceedings. I hope it all brings honor and glory to You. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
The board must immediately cease opening its meetings with Christian prayers, FFRF insists.
“It is beyond the scope of a public school board to schedule or conduct prayer as part of its meetings,” Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to board Chair Raymond Whitaker. “This practice violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”
In the Indian River School District case, 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, which is heightened in the context of public schools. In the most recent case striking down a school board’s prayer practice (Chino Valley), a case that FFRF successfully litigated, 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.”
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 three in ten who now identify as religiously unaffiliated.
“The school board should be modeling respect for freedom of conscience and the principle of separation between religion and government,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It presumes to speak for the religious belief of the entire population of Essex County — a presumption that is quite certainly false.”
FFRF is a national nonprofit organization with more than 36,000 members across the country, including more than 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.