Thanks to One Woman’s Efforts, a Vermont Town Will No Longer Recite a Prayer at Its Annual Meeting

The town of Franklin, Vermont will no longer be saying prayers at their annual March meeting thanks to one courageous woman, Marilyn Hackett.

Marilyn Hackett (Emily McManamy - Burlington Free Press)

Since 2000, the beginning of the annual meeting has included a Christian prayer like this one:

Let us pray together. Lord, we thank you for this day as we come together as a community, and as we share this time together, we pray that you would bless each family, each person that serves in our community — our fire department, our rescue service, our school, our teachers. Lord, each one we ask that they be — Lord, may this day be glorifying to you to help us to do the business in a manner that is worthy of your [kingdom]. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

For years, Hackett objected to the prayer. In 2009, to just cite one instance, the town seemed to gang up against her:

… the town moderator agreed to forgo the prayer after she spoke to him but when a community member asked for the prayer, the moderator called for a vote by a show of hands, the complaint said. Hackett was the only one who voted against it.

Later during the 2009 meeting, a resident said he was proud to live in Franklin — a town of 1,300 — and if Hackett didn’t like it, she could move out, the complaint said.

Enough was enough. She finally sued the town in March, 2011.

Hackett is a “para-educator, tutor and summer school instructor” at Richford High School in the area and, for her efforts in pursuing this case, she has had to deal with the kinds of taunts normally reserved for high school atheists:

She says she is harassed by teenagers in her school several times a day about the case, who say “I love Jesus. God bless you Miss Hackett. God save you Miss Hackett,” she said.

“The only thing I can hope for is that years from now they’ll remember that there was an adult who stood up for her point of view,” she said.

There’s finally good news for her, though.

On Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Martin Maley ruled in her favor (PDF):

The Town appears to suggest that the prayer is not ‘religious worship’ because it occurs at ‘an annual meeting,’ presumably in contrast to a church,” Maley wrote in his 15-page ruling, issued Wednesday at the courthouse in St. Albans. “The Court cannot agree. Article 3 (of the Vermont Constitution) prohibits compelled attendance at ‘any religious worship.’ Religious worship, of course, is not defined by the building it occurs in, nor by the events that take place after it.

The Court concludes that Ms. Hackett was compelled to attend religious worship.

Hackett may also be awarded legal fees for her victory.

It’s yet another example of what one person — knowing the law is on her side — can do, even when the rest of her community is against her.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • littlejohn

    If she’s an English teacher, she will object to your spelling of “its” in your headline.

    • http://petertferguson.blogspot.ie/ Petertferguson

      She would also object to your misuse of quotation marks.

      • http://twitter.com/luciferadi Adi Rule

        How is that a misuse of quotes?

        • http://petertferguson.blogspot.ie/ Petertferguson

          Well obviously you use quotation marks to quote someone but littlejohn has written in the correction not the actual quote so the marks should not be used.

          • CS42

            I’m an English teacher.  Little John’s use of quotation marks is correct.  In addition to direct quotes we also use quotation marks to indicate words used as words, as  John was doing with the word “its.”

            • http://petertferguson.blogspot.ie/ Petertferguson

              Ah, fair enough.

            • Fsq

              as a journalist (who can’t type to save his life) – APA style allows for the usage in the OP ‘s style.

              AND…..let’s see who is up on the latest APA style…HOPEFULLY, this will end well…..
              :)

              • CS42

                I think you mean the AP, not the APA.

                (The APA is agnostic about such flagrant disregard toward parts of speech :P )

                • Fsq

                  LOL!!!!! I am in the Adirondacks right now and have been covering a story that involves tha Adirondack Park Aministration…aka…The APA…

                  DOH!!!
                  :)

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      Thanks for making me hate myself :) Typo fixed!

  • Bob Becker

    Two things:

    1. What the devil is a “para-educator”?

    2. I doubt that the student comment cited in your post can reasonably describrd as either “taunting” or “harrassment.” “You’re going to burn in hell!” Would be, but a student saying she loves Jesus, that she hopes god will bless the teacher and bring her to belief is protected speech for the student unless it was said at a time or place that created a disruption at the school or intererfered with the conduct of learning there.

    • http://twitter.com/luciferadi Adi Rule
      • Bob Becker

        Adi:  thanks for the wikilink. Apparently the term is far more commonly used than I thought.  Appreciate the pointer. 

    • Stev84

      That comment was pure insincerity and condescension. There was nothing loving about it

    • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

      A para-educator is a classroom instructor who is typically uncredentialed, but works under a regular teacher. A kind of teacher aide.

      If people insist on haranguing you with comments they have good reason to believe you don’t want to hear, that’s reasonably called “harassment”. That doesn’t mean it’s not protected speech, and ordinary harassment need not rise to the level where it might be considered legal harassment. I certainly consider proselytizing to be a form of harassment.

      • Bob Becker

        CP:

        First, thanks for explaining “para-educator.” Term was new to me. As for harrassment, I was thinking of it largely as a legal term, as in ” harrassment in the workplace.” I’d agree that uninvited prostelytizing or faith testimonies are and were in this, instance, annoying.

  • Kimpatsu

    Hemant, why the apostrophe misuse in the headline? I thought you were a schoolteacher!

    • Stev84

       He is a math teacher. He can’t be expected to know these things :p

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

        Late night typo, I swear!

  • Renshia

    Way to go Marilyn Hackett, I hope one day when your country falls under the crush of religious bigotry, someone thinks back and remembers you had it right.

  • Joe Zamecki

    Excellent. I wish all the city councils of our nation had to abide by this ruling. Marilyn rocks!

  • kev_s

    This from the ruling is a useful argument against those that say these prayers have some special status because “they’re traditional”.

    “Such an approach implies that phrases like ‘in God we trust’ or ‘under God,’ when initially used on American coinage or in the Pledge of Allegiance, violated the establishment clause because they had not yet been rendered meaningless by repetitive use.”). The Court rejects the Town’s suggestion that the history of prayer at town meeting renders it non-religious and concludes that the prayers at issue constituted “religious worship.”

    I love the “rendered meaningless by repetitive use” bit but in fact they were always meaningless.

    • Derrik Pates

      Just because it’s tradition, doesn’t mean it was ever a good idea.

  • Fsq

    Way to go Marilyn!!!

    Well done, and Vermont is one of the better states in this dysfunctional and broken country!!!!

  • Baby_Raptor

    Thank you, Vermont, for standing up for those of us who aren’t Christian.

  • Andrewrizzo

    Hacket, out.

  • Johan Stuyts

    She said she hopes that the students will remember her because she stood up for her point of view. I hope she was misquoted, because standing up for your views is a bad position to take. You are essentially saying: I don’t care whatever good reasons there may be for changing my view, I am sticking with it.

    People standing up for their views is what is preventing us from improving the world. In my opinion she should have said something like: … they’ll remember that there was an adult who stood up for what is right. (What is right is also very subjective of course.) 

  • Ryan McCue

     Yet one of the many reasons I am proud to live in this fine state!


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