Stop your prayers, FFRF admonishes N.C. school board

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A North Carolina school board must immediately halt its practice of starting its meetings with board member-led prayer, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is insisting.

A concerned Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools parent has reported that the board begins each meeting with a Christian prayer led by a board member. The board’s meeting minutes indicate that the majority of recent prayers have been led by school board member Susan Miller. For instance, the April 16 meeting started with this prayer led by her:
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 is asking the board to immediately cease opening its meetings with prayer out of respect for the First Amendment rights of and the diversity of its students and the community.

“The Supreme Court has consistently struck down prayers offered at school-sponsored events,” FFRF attorney Chris Line writes 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. The board’s actions display clear favoritism towards religion over nonreligion, and Christianity over all other faiths.”

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.

In Lund v. Rowan County (N.C.), the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that even legislative prayer is unconstitutional when the members of the legislative body are the only ones giving prayers because the government is delivering prayers that were exclusively prepared and controlled by the government, constituting a “much greater and more intimate government involvement” in the prayer practice than those that have been found constitutional. Here, the prayers are being delivered by school board members.

And, FFRF adds, it is coercive, insensitive and intimidating to force nonreligious citizens, such as our 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. A full 37 percent of the American population is non-Christian, including the almost 30 percent who are nonreligious.

Out of respect for the First Amendment rights and diversity of its community, FFRF requests that the board cease unconstitutionally including prayers at meetings.

“School boards should be using their time and energy to tackle educational issues, not to pray,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “And it is an imposition of a sectarian religious perspective on those who don’t share that faith.”

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