FFRF persuades Robeson County, N.C., education board to stop prayer

A North Carolina county board of education has ended its longtime practice of opening prayer after the Freedom From Religion Foundation pointed out its unconstitutionality.

A concerned parent had informed the state/church watchdog that the Public Schools of Robeson County Board of Education traditionally began each meeting with a Christian prayer led by a board member or district employee. For instance, the February meeting earlier this year started with a Christian prayer led by board member Henry Brewer:

Let us pray. Almighty and wise God, creator of the universe, we thank You, Lord, for allowing us this day to see. We thank You, Lord, tonight, God, for the invitation to be able to come, Lord, tonight and to pray with these men and women to make great decisions for the Public Schools of Robeson County. We ask you, Lord, tonight, to strengthen the superintendent from day to day as he makes decisions for the Public Schools of Robeson County. We pray tonight, Father, for each board member as they make their decisions, Lord, as they make their decisions concerning the Public Schools of Robeson County. … Father, we thank You again for this day, that you allowed us to see. … In Jesus’ name we do pray, amen. 

FFRF asked that the board immediately cease opening its meetings with prayer out of respect for the First Amendment rights and the diversity of its students and the community.

“The Supreme Court has consistently struck down prayers offered at school-sponsored events,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to board Chair Randy Lawson. “In each of these cases, the Supreme Court struck down school-sponsored prayer because it constitutes government favoritism towards religion, which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

Further, federal courts have also held that opening public school board meetings with sectarian prayer also violates the Establishment Clause. In the most recent case striking down a school board’s prayer practice, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals 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 have the right — and often reason — to participate in school board meetings, FFRF emphasized. It is coercive, insensitive and intimidating to force nonreligious citizens, such as FFRF’s 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.

FFRF’s reasoning provided a valuable constitutional lesson to the board.

“The Public Schools of Robeson County Board of Education now opens its meetings with a Moment of Silence,” the school district’s legal counsel recently responded.

FFRF is always happy to be of educational service.

“We’re pleased that the school board has changed a longstanding unconstitutional practice,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The public meetings will now appear welcoming to all, rather than exclusionary.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 40,000 members and several chapters across the country, including more than 800 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. 

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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