FFRF puts pressure on schools, city over prayers

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is working to get public school districts, city councils and other government bodies to refrain from opening meetings with prayers.

In the past week, FFRF has sent out five letters to various governmental agencies asking them to stop with the pre-meeting religious invocations. FFRF is a national state/church separation watchdog with more than 23,000 members.

FFRF Staff Attorneys Andrew Seidel and Sam Grover sent letters on May 3 to Wasatch County School District (Heber City, Utah), Duval County Public School Board (Jacksonville, Fla.) and North Richland Hills City Council (North Richland Hills, Texas). On April 26, the attorneys sent letters to Hutto ISD Board of Trustees (Austin, Texas) and Pinellas County School Board (Largo, Fla.).

All five letters point out that these government prayers are not covered by the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in the Town of Greece v. Galloway decision. Seidel writes that “school boards are not deliberative legislative bodies” and that “while Congress and state legislatures existed when the First Amendment was ratified, the public school system did not. Thus, Galloway has no applicability to the constitutionality of prayers at public school board meetings.” To North Richland Hills, which is a legislative body, Grover noted that its practice is different from the practice upheld in Galloway, which “did not address situations in which government officials themselves lead prayers at council meetings. The Court in Galloway only approved opening a neutral forum for others, including non-Christians and atheists, to give invocations.”

Seidel sent the letter to Wasatch County Schools Superintendent Terry Shoemaker and School Board President Mark Davis, stating that “board meetings regularly include Mormon-style prayers delivered by yourself, board members, and district employees. The Supreme Court has continually and consistently struck down prayers offered at school-sponsored events.”

Seidel also sent letters to the members of the Duval County School Board. “Agendas for DCPSB regular board meetings always list an invocation or ‘thought of the day’ prior to the Pledge of Allegiance. . . . We ask that you immediately refrain from scheduling prayers as part of future school board meetings to uphold the rights of conscience embodied in our First Amendment.”

For the Pinellas County Schools, Seidel sent a letter to David Koperski, the School Board’s attorney, asking that the district stop opening meetings with religious-themed prayers or invocations that were normally given by pastors.

Grover sent a letter to Roger Hepworth of the Fowler Law Firm, which represents the Hutto ISD Board of Trustees. “We are informed that the prayers are almost universally Christian,” Grover writes. “For instance, at the April 14 board meeting, board member Billie Logiudice gave a prayer thanking God for ‘for giving us this day’ and ending with ‘In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.'”

And in the letters to North Richland Hills City Council members and Mayor Oscar Trevino, Grover writes, “Our complainant informs us that these invocations are frequently used as an opportunity for the member of the Council to promote their personal religious beliefs to the assembled council members and members of the public. Prayer at government meetings is unnecessary, inappropriate, and divisive. The best solution is to discontinue invocations altogether.”

FFRF is urging these governmental bodies to do the right (and legal) thing and end their pre-meeting prayers.

FFRF has more than 125 members in Utah, almost 1,000 members in Texas and more than 1,200 in Florida.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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