Silence is recommended but if prayers are offered they must be nonsectarian.Stafford County, VA – The ACLU of Virginia today asked the Stafford County School Board to adopt a policy allowing a moment of silence or nonsectarian prayers before opening its meetings, but not to permit sectarian prayers.
In a letter written by ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca K. Glenberg and faxed earlier today to the Stafford County School Board, the ACLU says that sectarian prayers violate both U.S. Supreme Court and Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals cases requiring prayers that open government meetings to be nonsectarian.
“We are not saying the school board can’t open its meetings with a prayer,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis, “only that the prayer must be inclusive and not indicate a preference for any particular religion. The Supreme Court views this as the only fair way for the government to address matters of faith in a society that demands religious equality.”
Glenberg specifically references Turner v. Fredericksburg, a 2008 Fourth Circuit decision holding that Fredericksburg City Councilman Hashmel Turner could not overturn the city’s policy mandating that meeting-opening prayers be nonsectarian.
Last spring, after a parent complained about a sectarian prayer at one of its meetings, the Stafford School Board suspended all prayers. But in September the Board voted to reinstate prayers, and earlier this week it brought in First Amendment expert Charles Hayes of the First Amendment Center to provide advice on school prayer issues. Haynes recommended a moment of silence as the best way of solemnizing meetings since it allows everyone to do it in their own way, but acknowledged that nonsectarian prayers are permissible.
According to Fredericksburg’s Free Lance-Star, the last two Stafford School Board meetings have been opened with sectarian prayers. According to Glenberg, the Board should have a “clear policy mandating nonsectarian prayers and should ensure that those who are invited to give invocations understand this policy.”
A copy of Glenberg’s letter can be found online at: http://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/20100115StaffordCountySchoolBoardPrayerLtr.pdf.
Contact: Kent Willis, 804-644-8022