FFRF to Va. school board: Don’t open meetings with prayer

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation is urging the York County School Board in Yorktown, Va., to rescind its decision to open official meetings with prayer.

A concerned district community member reported that during the board’s meeting on Jan. 8, it voted unanimously to impose prayer on students, parents and community members at its meetings. Video of the meeting shows Vice Chair Kimberly Goodwin stating she wanted to “invite local clergy to open our board up with prayer.” When asked whether the prayer would be before all meetings, or just the regular meetings where students, parents and community members would be present, Goodwin noted that she just wanted prayer at the regular meetings.

“It is beyond the scope of a public school board to conduct, or allow others to conduct, prayer as part of its meetings,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to Chair Lynda Fairman.

The Supreme Court has consistently struck down prayers offered at school-sponsored events. In 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. If the board starts opening its meetings with prayer it will subject the school district to unnecessary liability and potential financial strain.

Students and parents have the right — and often reason — to participate in school board meetings. 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. Board members are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way. Needlessly including prayer at board meetings excludes those among the 37 percent of Americans who are non-Christians, including the 49 percent of Generation Z that is religiously unaffiliated.

In order to respect both the First Amendment and the religious diversity of the community, FFRF is asking the board to rescind its decision to unconstitutionally include prayers at future meetings.

“Public schools exist to educate, not indoctrinate into religion,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The school board needs to respect the right of conscience of students, family members and the community at large.”

You can read FFRF’s full letter here.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 40,000 members across the country, including close to 1,000 members in Virginia. 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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