FFRF urges Pa. school district to stop praying before board meetings

McG written in gold against a dark blue backdrop

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is insisting that the McGuffey Area School Board shouldn’t begin its meetings with prayer.

A concerned school district employee informed FFRF that at the board’s Feb. 15 meeting, President Zonie Jackson announced that the majority of board members had decided to start board meetings with prayer led by “a pastor or minister from a church.” The pastor who gave the prayer at that meeting thanked “Dear Heavenly Father” for the board members wanting to “include You” in board meetings, continuing, “I thank You for all that You’re going to do through this school now that things are being under You.” The pastor concluded, “We praise You in Your precious heavenly name.”

“As a member of the community and a person who works at the district, I was appalled and felt excluded that they were saying a Christian prayer in a public school building during the school board meeting,” FFRF’s complainant wrote to the state/church watchdog.

FFRF is urging the board to discontinue prayer at its meetings from now on.

“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 Madeline Ziegler writes to Jackson.

The Supreme Court has consistently struck down prayers offered at school-sponsored events, as it constitutes government favoritism toward religion, which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Hence, FFRF asserts, it is unconstitutional for a public school board to open meetings with prayer. FFRF cites one of its successful lawsuits against such practices, in which the violative school district was ordered to pay more than $275,000 in attorney fees and costs.

Students, parents and employees have the right — and often reason — to participate in school board meetings. It is coercive, insensitive and intimidating to force nonreligious attendees 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 28 percent of Americans who are nonreligious, including the 49 percent of Generation Z that is religiously unaffiliated.

“A sectarian religious prayer at the start of a board of education meeting begins things off on an insensitive, discordant note,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “These meetings should instead be focused on what they’re meant to be concerned about: public education.”

You can read the full FFRF letter to the school board here.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with 40,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 1,100 members and a chapter in Pennsylvania. 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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