Winston-Salem, N.C., school board drops prayer after FFRF intercedes

A North Carolina school board will stop imposing member-led sectarian prayer at its meetings after the Freedom From Religion Foundation contacted the board objecting to the practice.

A concerned Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools parent had informed the state/church watchdog that the board began each meeting with a Christian prayer led by a board member. For instance, the April 16 meeting started with this prayer led by school board member Susan Miller:
Let us pray. Dear God, we ask that You would clear our minds and our hearts from any animosity so that we may face the relevant issues and address them with an open mind tonight. We pray that all decisions made tonight would be most beneficial for our students, teachers, staff, and our community. In Your name we
pray, amen.

FFRF asked the board to stop scheduling religious rituals out of respect for its students and the community and to comply with the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.

“The Supreme Court has consistently struck down prayers offered at school-sponsored events,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Board of Education Chair Deanna Kaplan. “Further, federal courts have held that opening public school board meetings with sectarian prayer also violates the Establishment Clause. Here, as in those cases, the board’s practice of opening meetings with district-led Christian prayers unconstitutionally coerces attendees to participate and observe a religious ritual.”

And, FFRF added, it was coercive, insensitive and intimidating to force nonreligious citizens 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. A full 37 percent of the American population is non-Christian, including the almost 30 percent who are nonreligious, FFRF informed the board.

FFRF’s persuasion powers worked their charm, as can be seen in the school district counsel’s recent response: “Our board has taken measures to ensure that it will not engage in nonsecular prayer during the invocation portion of the board meeting.” A FFRF perusal of recent board meeting videos confirms that the board has shifted from an invocation to a motivational message-style opening.

“The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Board will now have more time and energy to focus on matters of education, as it is meant to do,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “School board members who wish to pray can do so on their own time and dime — and we appreciate the board’s action to keep its meetings secular and inclusive.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 40,000 members and several chapters across the country, including more than 900 members and a chapter in North Carolina. 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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