FFRF calls for end to Ohio school district’s discriminatory prayer

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Immediately cease coercive and discriminatory school board prayers, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is urging the Ohio-based East Knox Local School District

FFRF has been informed by a concerned member of the district that board member and Pastor Matt Schwartz has been using his position to regularly open school board meetings with prayer, and gave a sermon targeting an individual student. On Dec. 8, Schwartz reportedly delivered a speech laced with Christian language, including references to God and “the Lord.” This sermon was fueled in particular by a discussion among the board about gendered dress codes and singled out one particular second grade student who wore a dress to school. Schwartz remarked:
I’ll always stand with God’s law when man’s law tries to supercede it. … I also talked about men wearing women’s apparel, it’s an abomination to the Lord. I remind us all we’re going to be judged by the word of God, not by popular opinion, not by the government. We’re going to all stand before God.

Such practices violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, FFRF is emphasizing to the East Knox Local School District.

“It is beyond the scope of a public school board to schedule or conduct prayer as part of its meetings, and for a board member to preach at meetings while serving in his official capacity at that meeting,” FFRF Equal Justice Works Fellow Kat Grant writes to Board President Lindsay Bush. 

Schwartz’s prayer and religiously coded talking points are clear violations of the Establishment Clause, FFRF stresses. It is the responsibility of every member of the board to uphold the separation of church and state. Schwartz proves that he has no interest in upholding this idea by delivering a prayer before publicly funded meetings.

While board members are allowed to address the board as private citizens, Schwartz made it clear that his comments were directed at all in attendance, and urged everybody to vote for his Christian vision for the school district. These comments are inappropriate and an abuse of his power.

By urging all in attendance to pray and side with his viewpoint, Schwartz is creating a coercive and discriminatory environment. Parents and students have the right and reason to participate in these meetings, and will feel forced to participate in this practice and silence their dissent out of fear of being singled out, particularly on an issue such as gender nonconformity of a particular student. Additionally, by pushing his own religion upon a captive audience, Schwartz is excluding the 37 percent of non-Christian Americans, including the 25 percent of Knox County residents who identify as religiously unaffiliated (nationally, almost 30 percent of adults are identified as “atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular”).

FFRF is calling upon the East Knox Local School District to immediately stop this practice. Additionally, it is requesting that these meetings no longer be used to push a discriminatory agenda that singles out marginalized communities, particularly a second grade student expressing their identity.

“The practice of prayer in school board meetings is highly unconstitutional,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Pastor Schwartz shows no interest in upholding the Establishment Clause, and his targeted discriminatory comments about a second grader will have sweeping harmful effects.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 39,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 1,000 members in Ohio and local chapters in the state. It protects the constitutional separation between state and church and educates about nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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