Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Communities Disrupted by School Board Prayer Issue

It's not just in North Carolina. Communities in Ohio, Texas, and Florida are in an uproar over this issue too...

Wow. Time for a mariachi band? In Boca?

Saturday, October 17, 2015

An unspoken "prayer" for Cleveland County

My email to the Cleveland County School Board...

Dear Chairman Glover and Members of the Board,

I commend the Board for taking a prudent and cautious approach to the contentious issue of invocations at your October 12 meeting, and I strongly urge you to reject any future proposals to implement a policy allowing invocations. Two U.S. circuit courts of appeals have expressly ruled that school board prayers are unconstitutional – a view which is shared by the ACLU and several other religious liberty watchdog groups (and probably some Cleveland County residents as well). While these are always fact-sensitive cases the courts recognize that the presence of students at school board meetings creates “an atmosphere that contains many of the same indicia of coercion and involuntariness that the Supreme Court has recognized elsewhere in its school prayer jurisprudence” (Doe v. Indian River School District).

As a sixth generation North Carolinian (Catawba County native) and a secular humanist (member of the Hickory Humanist Alliance), I suppose I represent one of those non-Christians that some of you fear giving a "platform and a podium” to speak to your children. I signed up on behalf of the Hickory Humanist Alliance (and a few of our members and supporters in Lincoln County) to deliver a solemn and respectful secular humanist invocation for the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners following their adoption of a non-discriminatory invocation policy in May, but they quickly switched to a moment of silence after a Muslim resident delivered the first non-Christian invocation on behalf of the Foothills Interfaith Alliance. So I never had the opportunity to deliver our invocation in Lincoln County.

A. Philip Randolph once said: "Prayer is not one of our remedies; it depends on what one is praying for. We consider prayer nothing more than a fervent wish; consequently, the merit and worth of a prayer depend upon what the fervent wish is." My fervent wish is that the Cleveland County School Board follow the lead of the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners (moment of silence) and that interfaith dialogue can help heal the wounds created by the current kerfuffle in your community. To that end I extend to you the secular humanist invocation that was prepared for, but never spoken in, Lincoln County. My hope is the same for Cleveland County.

As this Board convenes to do the important business of local government I ask you to lift your heads, to open your eyes, and to open your hearts. We are reminded that in our differences there is great strength. We do not all agree on everything. Yet we are linked by our common humanity and our shared origin. When we work together to move our community forward in a spirit of mutual respect and common decency, we showcase what is best about ourselves. There is one thing on which we all agree: We share the goal of making this community the best place it can be. I call on this Board to unite here today around that noble aim and common purpose, and I appeal to you to take care to ensure that all of your decisions are inspired by compassion and guided by knowledge.
William Keener

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Cleveland County School Board Meeting Erupts Over Prayer

First Rowan. Then Lincoln and Stokes. Now Cleveland County is dealing with the contentious issue of invocations at government meetings. With a county school board election just a few weeks away, a group calling itself the "Cleveland County Christian Law Enforcement Association" has organized a few hundred concerned citizens, and some sympathetic school board candidates, to encourage the Cleveland County School Board to do what all the other public boards and commissions in Cleveland County apparently do - open their meetings with (Christian) prayer. And apparently you're either with them, or against them.
"Ordained ministers, deacons and lifelong church-goers alike on the school board have had their faith questioned via social media, phone calls and emails. Several on the board stated such during Monday night’s hot-button meeting, largely centered on the groundswell of citizen interest in prayer before school board meetings."
 - Shelby Star (10/13)
At the end of a long and contentious meeting on Monday (that started with the crowd saying the Lord's Prayer out loud during the moment of silence), the Board voted against starting invocations immediately and to instead keep their moment of silence in place while the superintendent and legal council explore options (to pray). They are expected to report back to the Board at their next (post-election) meeting in November, with a possible vote on an invocation policy in December. In addition to the potential costs associated with a lawsuit to defend any such policy, another important issue was surfaced by one of the Board members:
"I am concerned about a couple things that will go along with this proposal. One of those is as an evangelical Christian I do not like the thoughts of giving a platform and a podium for a non-Christian to speak to our children... [It] means we will have to open up the podium to people of all faiths and I don't want to do that."
 - Jerry Hoyle 
In an email to WBTV, the ACLU noted: "Our office has been contacted by concerned county residents who rightfully believe that opening school board meetings with prayers could make students or residents of different beliefs feel unwelcome or pressured into participating in a religious activity with which they don't agree. Courts have found such practices to be unconstitutional, especially in school board settings."

What can you do?

Contact the Cleveland County Board of Education via email at boe@clevelandcountyschools.org. Please be polite, identify yourself as a secular humanist (if you're so inclined), and encourage the Board to keep their current practice (a moment of silence). Urge them to vote No on any proposed invocation policy. Here's my email to the BoE for your reference.
"Our constitution mentions religion just twice, and both times the word 'no' is attached."
 - Ellery Schempp

Updates: 10/20 

From the public comments at the Board's 10/26 meeting (video is here):
"Please allow me to explain what our ultimate goal is: We want God back in our schools, and we think it must start with the School Board." - Rodney Fitch of the Cleveland County Sheriff's Office and the Cleveland County Christian Law Enforcement Association
"You have to have a policy that treats all religions fairly, and that means equally. If one can pray, then all can pray. That’s the catch. Freedom of religion means all religions. The government isn’t allowed to play favorites." - Tony Brown of the Foothills Interfaith Assembly
  • The executive director of the Christian Action League believes the Board "shouldn’t shy away from starting their meetings with prayer just because someone of another religion other than the Christian faith might pray" as that would "threaten [his] own religious freedom" to a public "platform and a podium."

    "Besides most groups other than Christian never participate anyway" he said. "It’s a common misconception there is widespread religious pluralism in America. Studies clearly show this is not the case. The nation is predominantly Christian, nearly 90 percent, and, when Jews are included...the percentage reaches as high as 94 percent. So to prohibit prayer at the meeting because a Wiccan, or a Muslim might pray, would be like throwing the baby out with the bath water." Fact Check: False and False. Sorry Sparky...non-Christians are starting to show up and participate, and we haven't had a "90 percent" Christian majority in this nation since the 1980s or earlier.
  • Shelby Star: Three incumbents, one former member, one newcomer elected to school board.
    Note that Jerry Hoyle, the Board member concerned about giving "a platform and a podium for a non-Christian to speak to our children," was not re-elected.
  • "Citizens For Good Government" editorializes:
    "Perhaps the biggest losers in the School Board Election are the Christian folks who want School Board meetings to begin with a Christian Prayer. Cleveland County just elected five Board members with three incumbents who have already voted twice against Prayer. One who is weak on Prayer and another who never supported Prayer in over ten years previous service on the School Board, but says she does now. When the School Board lawyer tells them if they implement a Christian Prayer a lawsuit is likely, all five will probably cave and go for a moment of silence, despite all the hot air support for Prayer right before Election Day. Either that or a prayer that is prepared by the lawyer that the Lord will turn a deaf ear to."

    This post will be updated as the story develops...
11/24 - Board adopts inclusive invocation policy

Say what?