Greencastle-Antrim School board backs down on fight for prayer

Brian Hissong, vice president of the Greencastle-Antrim School District school board, read a statement Oct. 4. The board would no longer recite the Lord's Prayer, ending 50 years of tradition, due to threats of a lawsuit from atheists. A moment of silence would be observed at each meeting thereafter.

The agenda for the Greencastle-Antrim School District Board of School Directors changed permanently on Oct. 4, when Moment of Silence replaced Prayer on the line items of business. Brian Hissong, board vice president, announced that after legal consultation regarding Harrisburg-area atheists' threats of legal action if the prayer stayed, that recitation of the Lord's Prayer led by board members would be stopped. A court ruled last year that board-led prayer was unconstitutional. Following the demand by the atheist groups, the school board promised it would fight to keep the prayer. Through a legal evaluation the board learned it was not likely to win any battle to continue the practice and announced its intentions to the public.

Carl Silverman from PA Nonbelievers, and Ernest Perce V from American Atheists, had addressed the board on Aug. 16. They cited the case of Doe v. Indian River School District in southern Delaware, in which the school board also opened its meetings with prayer. The United States Court of Appeals, Third District, ruled in August 2011 that such prayer was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The United States Supreme Court refused to consider the case in January, which upheld the Third Circuit opinion. The atheists also contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Wisconsin, which threatened legal action.

Superintendent Dr. C. Gregory Hoover told the public at a packed Sept. 6 meeting that the board would fight the challenge. It then contacted the Alliance Defending Freedom and the American Center for Law and Justice, as well as its own solicitor, for legal advice. The response was that going to court would be expensive and unlikely to turn out in the school board's favor.

The crowd of 200 on Aug. 16 spontaneously recited the prayer, and on Sept. 16 an assembly of 80 did the same thing during the moment of silence. On Oct. 4 a tiny group of people attended the board meeting. At appeared that three men led the Lord's Prayer during the reflection time.

Once Hissong read the board's statement, there was no audible response to the announcement. The meeting continued with the next item on the agenda.

School board position

The following is the text of the school board's position presented at the board meeting:

To the Greencastle-Antrim School District Community,

The School Board of Directors wants to thank the community for its support over the last few weeks with this most difficult situation. The outpouring of letters, public comment and even offers of financial assistance, once again shows how much our community cares about its school system.

A tradition for several decades, the Lord's Prayer has been a regular part of board meetings. Last meeting, after consultation with our solicitor, the board made the decision to change our protocol and begin the meeting with a moment of silence. At that time, Dr. Hoover announced that the board would further investigate all options pertaining to this situation and report back to the community.

In 2011, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction includes Pennsylvania, ruled that board-led school prayer at meetings was not permitted, therefore unconstitutional in nature. Despite several attempts by leading organizations and school districts, the U.S. Supreme Court has chosen not to hear similar cases to ours at Greencastle-Antrim School District or other cases involving school prayer from other U.S. 3rd Circuit Courts of Appeal.

While we as a board and a community may strongly disagree with these decisions, we are faced with the following facts:

The law currently states that we (board of school directors) are not permitted to lead the Lord's Prayer at board meetings.

• If we were to pursue this situation legally, we would automatically lose at the first judicial level, because that court system is required to follow the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling.

• Once our case is lost at the first level, we could then appeal it to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. At this stage, as a district and community, we would need to convince the same court that our appeal is different from the case they ruled against last year; convince the court to reverse its decision from the previous year; and be financially prepared for court costs potentially in excess of $600,000.

• If appeals are lost the school district could be responsible for covering the plaintiff's court costs. These costs, in neighboring districts, related to the teaching of creationism, was in excess of $2.2 million, negotiated down to $1 million.

• Speaking to several organizations and various legal counsel, the written law is comprehensive and does not leave room for exceptions. Open disregard for this law by the board of directors as a whole can result in legal action against the district, as well as disqualifying of insurances required by law.

It is important to note that if the district loses such a legal case, we would not only have our own legal bills, but we would then be required to pay the plaintiff's legal bills. If the district were to win such a case, the plaintiff will not be responsible to compensate the district for legal costs associated with a defense. In essence, losing such a case would essentially fund the unsought organizations that have brought this issue to our community.

At this time, the board will continue with the Moment of Reflection at meetings. Of importance to many people in our community, your right to speak publicly remains an important freedom that has been, and will continue to be, part of each meeting.

Once again, we would like to thank our community for their support, thoughts and prayers.