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FFRF persuades Indiana school board to stop prayer at meetings

Crawford County PR

A responsive Indiana school board ended prayer at its meetings after the Freedom From Religion Foundation pointed out the constitutional inappropriateness of the practice.

A concerned Crawford County resident conveyed to the state/church watchdog that members of the county’s Board of Education regularly opened their public meetings with prayer. This practice reportedly took place after attendees had taken their seats in the meeting room — with board members directing all those in attendance to stand during this time, since it immediately followed the Pledge of Allegiance.

This practice violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, FFRF told the school board, citing a number of cases.

“In Indian River School District, 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,” FFRF Equal Justice Works Fellow Kat Grant wrote to Crawford County Board of Education President Karen Sheller. “In that case, the court held that school board meetings are ‘an atmosphere that contains many of the same indicia of coercion and involuntariness that the Supreme Court has recognized elsewhere in its school prayer jurisprudence.’ The final conclusion was that the school board prayer policy ‘[rose] above the level of interaction between church and state that the Establishment Clause permits.’”

The fact that the prayers are not on the meeting minutes or agenda do not make such religious practices at a public board meeting constitutional, FFRF underscored. Students and parents have the right — and often have reason — to participate in school board meetings. It is coercive, embarrassing and intimidating for nonreligious citizens to be required to make a public showing of their nonbelief (by not rising or praying) or else to display deference toward a religious sentiment in which they do not believe, but which their school board members clearly do. The school board ought not to lend its power and prestige to religion, since it amounts to a governmental endorsement of religion that excludes the 37 percent of Americans who are non-Christian, including the 29 percent of Americans who identify as religiously unaffiliated.

The board and its president proved to be receptive to FFRF’s constitutional lesson.

“I, too, have questioned this practice, but was assured that because prayer took place before the meeting started and not during the meeting, it was acceptable,” Sheller emailed back. “I understand now why that is not the case. I have spoken to the board concerning this, and we are in agreement to discontinue this practice immediately. … We would not want to engage in any practice considered unconstitutional.”

FFRF is pleased at the tone and content of the reply.

“We’re always delighted when we demonstrably enhance the understanding of the Constitution among public officials,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “In this case, we seem to have brought about concrete policy change.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 40,000 members and several chapters across the country, including more than 500 members and a local chapter in Indiana. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

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