FFRF bolsters atheist students’ opposition to unlawful Wa. school board prayer

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Student representatives on a school board in Prosser, Wash., have pushed back with the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s full support against a suggestion to start school board meetings with prayer.

A concerned Prosser School District student informed the state/church watchdog that the Jan. 24 Board of Directors meeting discussed whether to begin imposing prayer on students, parents and community members at its meetings. Video shows that Director Frank Vermulm suggested:
Maybe during our meetings we would open in prayer, like after the pledge. I’d  be willing to lead it, and um, I just think there’s a lot of things and issues that we  as a school district, a community even, you know, we think we could use some  divine intervention. So, just a thought. Like I said, I would be willing to lead it.

Another director chimed in to exclaim “That’s a great idea.” A third director offered to lead a prayer, too, and suggested that the board should “rotate,” a plan that would allow each member of the board to promote personal religious beliefs at school board meetings. Vermulm then noted that some pastors had told him they would like to come to the meeting and lead students and community members in prayer, as well.

One of the board’s student representatives bravely objected, saying that religion shouldn’t be brought up in school board meetings and urging the board not to start imposing prayer. The student noted that they are an atheist and that people from a variety of different religious backgrounds attend school board meetings — and leading them in prayer would be disrespectful. Another student representative agreed. Vermulm responded that he was a “man of faith” and believes in “divine intervention.” Another director approved of this sentiment.

A school board prayer practice would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,  FFRF reminded the school district.

“The Supreme Court has consistently struck down prayers offered at school-sponsored events,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote Prosser School District Board President Jason Rainer. “In each of these cases, the Supreme Court struck down school-sponsored prayer because it constitutes government favoritism towards religion.”

It is important to highlight that student representatives on the board immediately objected to the proposed prayer practice. This is significant because of court precedent. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals emphasized in FFRF’s victory over Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education a few years ago that even the 5th Circuit’s American Humanist Association v. McCarty decision, the only appellate court decision that has upheld prayer at school board meetings under some circumstances, “suggested that where a student is a board member, prayer at board meetings may present constitutional difficulties.” Here, not only are there student representatives at the board meetings, but they have directly asked the board not to impose prayer on them.

The student objections and FFRF’s reinforcement seem to have given the Prosser School District pause. FFRF recently received a reply from the superintendent emphasizing that the board only discussed instituting prayer at its Jan. 24 meeting and noting that it hasn’t taken any action. FFRF hopes that this response indicates that the Board of Directors is listening to its reasonable student representatives and that there will be no need for litigation to defend their constitutional rights.

“We are really thrilled when young activists come to the fore in opposing theocratic impositions,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We hope that the students’ perspective has caused the board to permanently reconsider its unlawful prayer plan. School board members are free to pray on their own time and dime, but should not misuse their civil authority to impose prayer on others.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 40,000 members and several chapters across the country, including more than 1,700 members and a chapter in Washington. 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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