The Freedom From Religion Foundation is urging the Columbus County Board of Education (based in Whiteville, N.C.) to protect the First Amendment rights of the school district community by ending board-led prayer.
A concerned local resident has reported that the board begins each meeting with a Christian prayer led by a member of the board. The board reportedly assumes that scheduling the official prayer just prior to calling the meeting to order makes the coercive practice constitutional.
Au contraire, says the national state/church watchdog.
The Supreme Court has consistently struck down prayers offered at school-sponsored events, since it constitutes government favoritism towards religion — violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Schemes to skirt the Constitution by moving prayers before other similar meetings have failed. In Forsyth County, N.C., county board prayers were ruled unconstitutional even though the county conducted the prayers before the official opening of the meeting and removed the invocation from the agenda.
“Out of respect for the First Amendment rights and diversity of its community, we ask that the board cease unconstitutionally including prayers at meetings,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to Columbus County Board of Education Chair Ronnie Strickland.
FFRF won a court challenge in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals against the prayer practice by Chino Valley (Calif.) Unified School District Board of Education. The court 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.” The court ordered the district to pay more than $200,000 in attorney's fees and costs.
Students and parents have the right — and often reason — to participate in school board meetings. It is coercive, insensitive and intimidating to force nonreligious citizens, such as our complainant, to choose between making a public showing of their nonbelief by refusing to participate in the prayer or else display deference toward a religious sentiment in which they do not believe but which their school board members clearly do.
Needlessly including prayer at board meetings excludes those who are among the 37 percent of Americans who are non-Christians, including the 29 percent of adult Americans who are atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular” and the 49 percent of Generation Z who are religiously unaffiliated.
In order to protect the First Amendment rights of parents and students of the district, FFRF is demanding that the district immediately end the unconstitutional practice of board-led prayer.
“Public school officials should never force their religion on meeting attendants,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “They can pray on their own time and dime. Instead the board should focus on pressing issues that students and parents of all religions and no religion face on a daily basis.”
You can read the full FFRF letter here.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 40,000 members and several chapters across the country, including more than 900 members and a local chapter in North Carolina. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.