Indiana school board ends prayers at meetings — thanks to FFRF

An Indiana school board has halted its ritual of starting off its meetings with a prayer after the Freedom From Religion Foundation warned it that the practice is unconstitutional.

A concerned community member informed the state/church watchdog that the Community Schools of Frankfort Board of Trustees opened each of its meetings with Christian prayer. For instance, its meetings last November and December began with a Christian prayer led by a board member following the Pledge of Allegiance. The November prayer was addressed to “Dear Heavenly Father” and given in the name of Jesus Christ.

FFRF wrote a letter in January to request that the board cease opening its meetings with prayer in violation of the Constitution.

“The Supreme Court has consistently struck down prayers offered at school-sponsored events,” FFRF Anne Nicol Gaylor Legal Fellow Sammi Lawrence wrote to Community Schools of Frankfort Board of Trustees President Sandra Miller. “Further, federal courts have held that opening public school board meetings with sectarian prayer violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

In a 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.

Plus, the board’s actions were needlessly alienating to students, families, and community members who do not subscribe to Christianity, FFRF emphasized. A full 37 percent of the American population is non-Christian, including the almost 30 percent who are nonreligious.

Unfortunately, the board continued opening its meetings with prayer. The board attempted to “fix” the constitutional violation at the February and March meetings by asking a local pastor and community members to lead the prayer rather than a board member. FFRF again wrote to insist that the board cease opening its meetings with prayer in violation of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause.

“The board’s new practice of inviting clergy and community members to deliver religious invocations at the start of meetings unconstitutionally coerces attendees to participate in and observe religious exercise,” Lawrence wrote in the April 17 letter. “The board’s choice to set aside time at the beginning of each meeting specifically for uniformly Christian invocations displays clear favoritism towards Christianity over all other faiths, and religion over nonreligion.”

FFRF again asked that the board refrain from opening its meetings with prayer out of respect for attendees’ First Amendment rights and the separation between state and church.

FFRF’s follow-up communique seems to have done the trick.

“The Community Schools of Frankfort Board of Education has ceased offering a prayer before our board meetings,” the board recently responded via email. Instead, the board has opted for a moment of silence as a substitute.

FFRF is always happy when its powers of persuasion achieve success.

“It took some persistence on our part, but we were finally able to show the Community Schools of Frankfort Board how its prayer practice violated the First Amendment,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 40,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 500 members and a local chapter in Indiana. 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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