FFRF urging Florida college trustees to drop Christian prayer

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is requesting that the New College of Florida Board of Trustees end the practice of opening each meeting with Christian prayers.

An employee of New College of Florida, a public institution based in Sarasota, has informed FFRF that the board recently began opening all of its meetings with prayer at the behest of former board member Jason “Eddie” Speir. Board minutes confirm that each meeting begins with prayer, and the complainant reports that the prayers are overwhelmingly Christian in nature.

Speir pushed for prayer to open board meetings in early January. The request was initially denied by the chair of the board, but upon reconsideration it was allowed, leading to a campus pastor delivering prayer. Speir is no longer a member of the board, as the Florida Senate did not confirm his position after he was appointed on Jan. 6 by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“Board members are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes in a letter to board chair Debra A. Jenks.

Sectarian prayer at board meetings is unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive. The practice needlessly excludes the nearly 30 percent of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated, as well as the additional 6 percent of Americans adhering to non-Christian faiths. Among young, college-aged people, the percentage who identify as having no religion is even higher.

It is also important to note that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, which allows invocations at city council meetings under certain circumstances, did not address prayer in a public school or public college context, and in subsequent cases, courts have held that Greece does not apply and that prayer is not permissible at school board meetings.

FFRF is asking the board to demonstrate respect for the diverse range of religious and nonreligious persons within the New College of Florida community and to adhere to established law. The state/church watchdog is therefore urging the board to leave religion to the private conscience of each individual by refraining from opening board meetings with prayer.

In a highly controversial move, DeSantis took over the New College Board this year, appointing six members to turn it from a small, liberal arts college to one that is far more conservative. DeSantis’ Chief of Staff James Uthmeier told the National Review he wanted New College to become a “Hillsdale of the South,” referencing Michigan’s evangelical Christian college. Other trustees are now promoting prayer on the board, including Deborah Sargeant, who recently said that asking for guidance in prayer should “set the tone for the meetings.”

“College board meetings aren’t religious sermons, they’re meetings to discuss secular policy decisions facing this public college,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

Read FFRF’s letter here.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 40,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 2,000 members and a local chapter in Florida. 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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