Two students may have prevented a school board from saying Christian prayers at meetings
Yoshimi Garcia and Noah Dempsey said prayers at board meetings would be "disrespectful" and divisive.
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Frank Vermulm made it clear that he would find that helpful, and, oh, by the way, he’d be happy to lead everyone in prayer too.
… maybe during our meetings… we would open in prayer, like after the Pledge. You know, I’d be willing to lead it, and, um, I just think there’s a lot of things, a lot of issues that we as a school district, a community even, you know… we could use some divine intervention.
So, just a thought. Like I said, I would be willing to lead it.
Another board member quickly chimed in: “I think that’s a great idea.” A third board member later suggested taking turns reciting the prayers. Vermulm then chimed in to say that pastors had already contacted him asking for the opportunity to pray at their meetings.
All of this is, of course, a horrible idea.
You would hope that people serving on any public school board recognize that their roles only exist because we need people making good decisions—based on facts, research, and common sense—on behalf of the students. If divine intervention worked, we wouldn’t need the board members. And if God’s direction is so damn important, there’s nothing stopping people like Vermulm from praying on his drive to the meeting.
But none of that crossed his mind. He wanted to impose his faith on everyone else, taking time away from getting to the business of the meeting.
Here’s the amazing thing, though.
His suggestion was shot down, not by a fellow board member, but by a student representative who happened to be at the meeting. Yoshimi Garcia (sitting on the far left in the video below) responded to the adults by reminding them how divisive and unnecessary such a move would be.
She was then backed up by another student representative, Noah Dempsey (third from left)).
GARCIA: … I don't think that religion should be brought into school. So I don't think that should happen. I, personally, am an atheist, and I don't think that should happen, so… I think that there are a lot of people different religions, and I think that'd be disrespectful.
DEMPSEY: I would tend to agree... I think that that should be something that's excluded. I mean, there's already enough controversy when it comes to saying the Pledge of Allegiance. Why bring more controversy into something that doesn't need it? That would be my two cents on that.
And I would say that, if that was a decision you would need—you would want to make—that you would also need to consider bringing in those who would be willing to say a Muslim prayer, a Buddhist prayer, a Catholic prayer, any or all of the above [for inclusivity].
He didn’t mention Satanic or secular prayers, but they would potentially be in the mix as well.
Those students had the guts to say what none of the adults understood: School board meetings aren’t a substitute for church. It’s their job to do work for the district, not preach to people who weren’t asking for it.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation soon stepped in, sending a letter to the district reminding them of how “unlawful” such a move would be. While the Supreme Court has legalized invocations at local government meetings, those rules do not apply to school board meetings (where children may be present).
If the Board starts opening its meetings with prayer it will subject the District to unnecessary liability and potential financial strain. When FFRF secured a court order in the Chino Valley case regarding its school board prayers, the court ordered the district to pay more than $200,000 in the plaintiffs’ attorney fees and costs... After appeal, the court ordered the district to pay an additional $75,000 for plaintiffs’ attorney fees and costs associated with the appeal for a total of more than a quarter million dollars.
Students and parents have the right—and often reason—to participate in school board meetings. 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.
The good news is that the board may now be walking away from the prayer idea. In a terse response to FFRF, Superintendent Kim Casey wrote, “We have not taken any action on this matter” and that “it was strictly a discussion.”
That’s fine. As long as it stays that way. Because the students spoke up, and because atheists had to remind board members that their job is not to cosplay as preachers, a crisis that would ultimately hurt students has been averted. For now.