Arizona School District Votes to Reinstate Prayer at Board Meetings

Up until November of last year, the Mesa Public Schools Governing Board in Arizona began every one of their meetings with a prayer. Not just run-of-the-mill generic prayers to “God,” but sectarian prayers uttered by “assistants and associate superintendents” that included Christian phrases like “Heavenly Father” and “In Your Name, Amen.”

It was illegal, pure and simple, so the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent them a letter warning them that a lawsuit could be imminent if the practice didn’t stop:

Prayer at public school board meetings is unnecessary, inappropriate, and divisive. Calling upon Board members, as well as parents and students of the school, to pray is coercive, embarrassing, and beyond the scope of our secular school system. Board members are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way. The governing board ought not to lend its power and prestige to religion, amounting to a governmental endorsement of religion that excludes the one in five adult Americans and one in three young Americans who are now nonreligious.

We ask that you take immediate action and refrain from scheduling prayers as part of future Board meetings. We further ask that you respond in writing with the steps you are taking to remedy this constitutional violation

In response to the letter, the school board decided to begin meetings with a moment of silence instead — which was, legally speaking, a perfectly acceptable response.

At the November meeting, board President Mike Nichols asked those in attendance to observe a moment of silence. Afterward, he said Mesa schools’ legal counsel had advised the board that if it were to be sued over the prayer said at meetings, the district likely would lose in court.

So they did the right thing. I mean, they were pressured into it, but they caved, and that oughta count for something…

But just weeks into the moment of silence — bringing us to earlier this month — the board was thinking about revisiting the prayers:

The Mesa Public Schools governing board may reconsider a November decision to start meetings with a moment of silence instead of a non-denominational prayer.

Board Clerk Mike Hughes said he expects board members to consider reinstating the prayer by inviting a wide range of religious leaders to share their traditions at the start of meetings.

Hughes said he does not envision the board returning to its former tradition of having assistants and associate superintendents take turns saying prayers before meetings.

So FFRF sent them another letter:

In short, there is no policy this Board could draft that would make the prayers acceptable. Sectarian or nonsectarian; given by citizen, pastor, or superintendent; the prayers would be declared unconstitutional by any court.

We hope that this board will not bow to the financially irresponsible and unconstitutional wishes of citizens who insist on pushing their religious rituals on everyone else.

Very strong words. Very blunt, too. But just to show that they don’t know how to take a hint, the school board unanimously voted last Tuesday to reinstitute the prayers, a careless and reckless decision made by people who care more about appeasing their imaginary friend than doing what’s right for the students in the district:

The five-member Mesa school board agreed without dissent to invite clergy from all religions to participate in a new pre-meeting program…

The vote, held on Tuesday, reversed a decision in November that replaced prayer with a moment of silence. Reports state that the board was initially fearful of losing a lawsuit if the prayers were challenged in court.

“Prayer helps set the tone for the deliberations that are to follow,” stated clerk Michelle Udall prior to the vote. “Our Founding Fathers clearly did not intend for prayer to be banished from public meetings. Those who do not wish to participate are always allowed to refrain.”

The new policy says the school board will be inclusive of all beliefs, though if you read it carefully, the protocol they have in place leaves no room for Humanist group leaders or leaders who don’t have an established presence in the community.

Perhaps the policy would be amended again if a few Wiccans, Pagans, Muslims, and Scientologists requested time to deliver invocations… (And where are the Satanic Temple representatives when we need them?!)

In any case, the residents of the city aren’t helping, merely reminding all of us that this is just a not-so-subtle way to push Christian prayers at board meetings:

MPS has always stood for the solid traditional (and, yes, Christian) values that this country was founded on. Unfortunately, the culture that has defined America’s greatness is eroding into political correctness,” resident Harry Scott emailed to the board following the decision. “Please summon up the courage to stand firm. The district needs prayer now more than ever.”

Subtext: Screw you, Jews.

There’s no word yet on whether FFRF will file a lawsuit, but it’s the height of irresponsibility for these board members to replace a moment of silence — something that’s already religious in nature — with a more explicit form of Godspeak.

I hope FFRF calls their bluff.

(Image via Shutterstock — Thanks to Ricky for the link)

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.


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