Greencastle-Antrim School Board to fight for prayer: moment of silence to replace prayer during legal evaluation

Staff Writer
Echo Pilot
A respectful and interactive crowd asked the Greencastle-Antrim School Board to keep public prayer as part of its agenda.

On Thursday, Sept. 6, in a meeting room packed with citizens supporting public prayer, The Lord's Prayer was recited not once, but twice. And neither recitation was led by the Greencastle-Antrim School Board, under fire by Harrisburg area atheists who threatened legal action if the practice continued.

Carl Silverman, a member of PA Nonbelievers, and Ernest Perce V, Pennsylvania director of American Atheists, also represented the Freedom From Religion Foundation when they told the board on Aug. 16 that the prayer was unconstitutional. On their return Sept. 6, they were met with a crowd that disagreed. The middle school library overflowed, with people also listening from the hallways.

Over 200 passionate visitors applauded repeatedly as 10 residents asked the board to retain prayer as an opening at its twice-monthly meetings. President Eric Holtzman, and members Joel Fridgen, Tracy Baer, Ken Haines, William Thorne, Mike Shindle, Brian Hissong, Mike Still and Melinda Cordell met in executive session with solicitor Jerry Weigle before and after the public comment.

Citizen opinions

Holtzman announced that only taxpayers and G-A citizens would be allowed to speak. He also changed the order of business on the agenda, beginning with the recognition of citizens before any prayer was conducted. Jeff Todd, who had voiced his opposition to the atheists' demand in the media, started the plea. "I knew it would be standing room only," he said. "You guys (crowd) make me proud. The fight isn't here. This is Greencastle. We won't have these outsiders telling us how to live."

Pastors David Grove, Joseph Stahura, Stacy Crawford and Jeff Ehko quoted Bible passages backing their stance that prayer was necessary and acceptable to both man and God.

"Keep the boundary stones strong," said Crawford. "Governments run on punishment and fear if they don't have God. Look at China and Russia."

Brian Holmes pledged $5,000 if a legal battle ensued. He referenced Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger, who said legislative prayer was part of the fabric of society, and was a tolerable acknowledgment of citizen beliefs. "Tolerance seems to be one-directional. It should also be from the smaller group to the larger."

Gerald Lute said prohibiting prayer by the school board actually threw out the First Amendment in order to satisfy a special interest group. The liberal courts had rewritten the intent of the founding fathers, he said. Howard Ritchey, former school board member, told the panel to stand up to the bullies. He then prayed for the board, and began The Lord's Prayer. The audience joined in.

"That's how it should be done," interrupted Perce, standing along a wall with a video camera. "Thank you."

Norman Bender said the Bill of Rights and the Establishment Clause in the Constitution were meant to keep government out of religion, not religion out of government. He wanted prayer in school, but that it should not only be for Christians. At any meeting, people from other religions should also be allowed to pray. Ray Martin stressed that the community had high standards, and the practice of prayer upheld its moral fiber.

Board decision

Following a 20 minute executive session, superintendent Dr. C. Gregory Hoover addressed the assembly.

"Thank you for showing up tonight. You back up your views by your presence."

The board had decided to fight the case by contacting various recommended organizations for legal advice, Hoover explained to the crowd. However, until there was clarity on whether prayer violated the August 2011 decision of the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, Hoover said, it would observe a moment of silence instead of audible prayer. The immediate reaction was "Nooooooooo."

When Holtzman called for the silence, the citizens again recited The Lord's Prayer. During the Pledge of Allegiance, Silverman and Perce disrupted the tempo at the phrase 'one nation, under God'.

The people had mixed reactions to the position of the board.

"I don't like it," said Wayne Shreiner. "That's what's wrong with this country. Prayer and the Bible have been taken out of the schools. We should not be pressured from the outside. God will take care of us."

Sandy Alleman, wearing a T-shirt that read 'Prayer, the world's greatest wireless connection', understood that the board did what it had to do, but she would pray for the best. Dorothy Reed was happy to see such a large turnout. She understood the board's action as what they had to do.

Dale Hostetter accepted it as well. "I don't like it had to go that way, but it's important to be legal."

The next step

Holtzman hoped for a quick response from the consultants. Along with Weigle's advice, the board would investigate its legal options. Funding any fight had not been discussed.

"People have volunteered to contribute and we would welcome those opportunities, so we're not spending taxpayer money on the issue."

Silverman said they would discuss the matter with the legal departments of their organizations. Their personnel would review tapes, school board minutes and newspaper articles before deciding what to do.

Perce complimented the board.

"It did the right thing. We're very pleased. The crowd needs to understand what a moment of silence is. If you let the citizens pray, that's fine. I applaud the board."