FFRF demands Calif. school district board end prayer at meetings

Pious Servant Addis

Immediately cease the practice of prayer to open school board meetings, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is urging the Gateway Unified School District Board of Trustees.

On Jan. 18, the board made a motion to open meetings with prayer, which passed after a 3-2 vote. The national state/church watchdog, however, is pressing the board to reverse course.

“We ask that the board cease imposing prayer upon students, staff and community members in order to comply with the Establishment Clause and protect the constitutional rights of students and parents,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to Gateway Unified School District Board of Trustees President Cherrill Clifford.

There is more than 60 years of solid U.S. Supreme Court precedent against school-sponsored prayers, FFRF reminds the board. FFRF notes that the Supreme Court has struck down school-sponsored prayer because it constitutes government favoritism towards religion, which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The court’s recent decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District has neither altered the law regarding these kinds of coercive prayer practices nor has it overruled these previous decisions.

Furthermore, in striking down a school board’s prayer practice, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over California, recently reaffirmed in FFRF v. Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education 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.” The Chino Valley Unified School District was ordered to pay more than $275,000 in plaintiffs’ attorney fees and costs to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Students and parents frequently need to exercise their right and reason to participate in these meetings. The Gateway Unified School District Board of Trustees’ decision to open with prayer before meetings will create coercion and put pressure on nonbelieving or non-Christian students, parents and other attendees. FFRF reminds the board that 37 percent of Americans are not Christian, including the three in 10 adults who are religiously unaffiliated. (31 percent of Shasta County residents identify as nonreligious.)

These individuals will be forced to either participate in a practice that goes against their belief systems or single themselves out as nonbelievers.

Gateway Unified School District has not yet responded to FFRF’s letter. However, Board Trustee Dale Wallace, who voted against the motion, is urging the board to rescind the decision.

“The school board deserves an F for this move,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Injecting religion into public school events is divisive. Our public-supported schools, including public school boards, should not proselytize and must be welcoming to everyone, religious and nonreligious.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 39,000 members and several chapters across the country, including nearly 5,000 members and a chapter in California. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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