January 2016 Church & State - January 2016

N.C. County Roiled By Flap Over Official Prayer Policy

  AU admin

The Cleveland County, N.C., Board of Education voted recently to end its practice of opening meetings with a moment of silence in favor of allowing official invocations.

Last year, the board voted 8-2 to continue its previous policy of beginning meetings with a moment of silence. But some local agitators were upset by that decision and called for more vocal forms of religion to be injected into the meetings.

“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 at an October board meeting.

Greg McIntyre, an area attorney, made a similar statement. “I think it’s time to say enough to the wholesale removal of religious speech,” he said.

It seems the board bowed to community pressure, deciding in November to reverse course and allow pre-meeting prayers. The reason for the policy change may have resulted from the distraction the debate caused.

“I feel the board wants to get back to the business of education,” Board Chairman Phillip Glover said. “This topic of prayer has kind of distracted us from what we need to be focused on, and that’s educating the students of Cleveland County.”

Board member Donnie Thurman, who voted against the change, said he wants the board’s focus to be on students.

“I do think our focus always should be on our children,” he said. “A lot of this has been people, adults, driving this without our kids in mind.”

Thurman added that he is concerned the prayers could violate the rights of students who attend the meetings and the policy may have to be revised at a later date.

“This doesn’t promote one religion above another, and that could be a way to ensure we’re doing it in a legal, safe manner,” he said.

Under the new policy, Cleveland County Schools Superintendent Stephen Fisher must notify all religious congregations and assemblies that they are welcome to deliver an invocation, the Shelby Star reported.

Thurman said he hopes all religious groups are treated respectfully, but he made no mention of atheists, humanists or non-believers.

“I don’t want any religions disrespected,” he said. “I don’t want this to become a religious war.”

The controversy may not be over. While the U.S. Supreme Court said in Greece v. Galloway that local governments may open their meetings with predominantly Christian prayers, that decision only applied to legislative bodies. As a result it is unknown what impact the case will have (if any) on school boards. It’s notable, however, that school board meetings are not the same as meetings of local legislative bodies. As Thurman acknowledged, students do 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.

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