Pandora’s Prayer?: North Carolina School Board Mulls New Invocation Policy

The reality is that school board meetings aren’t the same as meetings of local legislative bodies. Students often attend school board meetings, meaning an official board invocation could be seen as a form of coercive school prayer – something the Supreme Court has rejected.

Even though a North Carolina school board recently did the right thing when it voted to open its meetings with a moment of silence, some residents are demanding that the board put “God back in our school.”

The Cleveland County Schools Board of Education voted 8-2 not long ago to maintain its current practice of beginning meetings with a moment of silence rather than adopting a new prayer policy. This is a perfectly reasonable thing to do since silence harms no one. If someone wants to pray at that time, they may.

But some local agitators don’t care about doing the constitutionally right thing – and they weren’t shy about saying so. WBTV, the CBS affiliate in Charlotte, reported that during a public comment period at last night’s board meeting, several people called on the board to promote coercive school prayer.

“We want God back in our school and we think it must start with the school board,” a representative of the Cleveland County Christian Law Enforcement Association said.

Greg McIntyre, an attorney, made a similar statement.

“I think it’s time to say enough to the wholesale removal of religious speech,” he said.

This sentiment is not surprising, especially in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Greece v. Galloway. In that ruling, the high court said local governments may open their meetings with predominantly Christian prayers. Some have speculated that this could open the door to official prayers at school board meetings, but since Greece only applied to legislative bodies, we don’t know yet what impact the case will have (if any) on school boards.

The reality is that school board meetings aren’t the same as meetings of local legislative bodies. Students often attend school board meetings, meaning an official board invocation could be seen as a form of coercive school prayer – something the Supreme Court has rejected.

It’s also important to remember that despite the high court’s rejection of mandatory Bible readings and prayers in the 1960s, prayer was not banned entirely in public schools. Students are still free to pray on their own or in groups, provided they don’t infringe on anyone else’s rights or cause a disruption. So when Religious Right allies say things like “we want God back in our school,” they are distorting the truth.

Unfortunately, the board said it will consult with its attorneys on this matter before its next meeting on Nov. 9. Those lawyers are in the process of drafting a new policy that would govern how board meetings begin and that policy will be up for review next month. It seems at least one board member wants to nix the moment of silence.

“I’m a true believer and believe in the power of prayer, and I’m just anxious to see the work from our attorney and see what comes up,” said Phillip Glover, the board chair.

Let’s hope this school board sticks with silence. That is a constitutionally sound policy that gives people the option to pray or not without anyone feeling pressure to go along with the crowd. The school board should also know that reversing course on this matter could lead to legal consequences. They’d be wise to tread lightly here.