Greencastle-Antrim School Board finding defense of prayer difficult

— By PAT FRIDGEN, Echo Pilot

School board-initiated prayer may end soon. The Greencastle-Antrim School District School Board observed moments of silence the past two meetings, due to challenges from atheists that  prayer was unconstitutional. An investigation into legally defending the tradition which has been observed for at least 50 years revealed that course of action was expensive.

Superintendent Dr. C. Gregory Hoover said the board heard from the Alliance Defending Freedom, and unofficially from American Center for Law and Justice, that a case in support of school prayer was not winnable. His research found that when an area school district went to court over creation versus evolution, and lost, it was dunned $2.2 million in legal fees for itself and its opponent. The district was able to negotiate the payout down to $1 million. The Indian River School District in Delaware lost its case in the Third District Court of Appeals last year as it sought to continue prayer at its school board meetings. That financial toll to taxpayers was $600,000 after the insurance company paid its share. Hoover said G-ASD’s insurer won’t pay for a legal fight, since it considered the practice illegal.

The target

The school board came under fire from Carl Silverman, Camp Hill, a member of PA Nonbelievers, and Ernest Perce V, Harrisburg, a member of American Atheists, on Aug. 16. They told the board to cease leading the recitation of The Lord's Prayer, or face legal action. Perce followed up with a formal letter of complaint and they notified the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis.

FFRF sent a fax and letter dated Aug. 17 to school board president Eric Holtzman. Staff attorney Rebecca Markert wrote "regarding a serious constitutional violation occurring in your school district."

Scheduled prayer was beyond the scope of a board's meetings, she said, and federal courts had struck down practices that included the religious ritual. She cited Doe v. Indian River School District, which Silverman and Perce had also referenced, as well as other cases. Prayer constituted a government endorsement of religion, which violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, she stated.

"Public school boards exist to set policies, procedures, and standards for education within the community,” Markert continued. Prayer was unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive, and excluded the 15 percent of the population that was non-religious. She asked the board to take immediate action and notify her of what that was.

Two hundred citizens packed the middle school meeting room Sept. 6. Following spirited public comment, the board recessed to discuss the issue with solicitor Jerry Weigle. It returned to observe a moment of silence, but promised to look into fighting the case. The crowd recited the prayer instead. Perce and Silverman attended the meeting. On Sept. 20 approximately 80 residents returned. The board just met a quorum, with Holtzman, Ken Haines, Brian Hissong, Mike Shindle and Mike Still present. Once again, someone in the audience led the prayer. Silverman was also present.

Markert sent Holtzman another letter based on the action of the board that night. In the letter dated Sept. 14 she said she was made aware of the board’s ongoing research. The Supreme Court outlawed prayer in schools in 1963, and in a 1983 decision legislative prayer was allowed "as a nod to history and custom," but even in that case the prayer was non-sectarian and did not include the word Christ. Because students attended G-ASD meetings, great care had to be taken not to pressure them.

Markert added, "It is unwise to look for a solution, (or) to open yourself up to costly and protracted litigation, which you will lose." She urged a stop to the practice, observing a moment of silence, or simply getting straight to the business members were elected to accomplish. She also wanted a written response.

Hoover did not reply to either letter, since FFRF was not a  governmental agency and he had no obligation to a private organization.

Jeff Todd, a citizen advocate to retain prayer, attended both school board meetings. His own research of the issue revealed the same results G-ASD is discovering. He was “broken-hearted” by the turn of events.

“Public schools are mandated by the law and court rulings,” he said. “The school board’s hands are tied. There are no alternatives.”

Todd also blamed Christians for getting lazy, and allowing others to create policy on prayer, starting in the 1960s. “We did this to ourselves. We’re stuck.”

Silverman and Perce took their concerns to the Big Spring School Board in Newville at the same time they visited Greencastle. Big Spring removed prayer from its agenda in late August to avoid the cost of legal action against the board and school district. FFRF also targeted Octorara Area School Board in Atglen, which dropped prayer to avoid spending tax dollars on a lawsuit, and the Eastern Lancaster County School Board in New Holland, which has not released a decision.

The G-ASD school board will notify the public when it renders its final decision.