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Non-profit organization threatens legal action against Washington Co. School board for praying before meetings

Posted at 6:40 PM, Dec 10, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-11 00:39:39-05

ST. GEORGE, Utah — The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the principle of the separation of church and state, is threatening legal action against the Washington County School District for its school board's practice of praying before meetings.

Read: Despite legal threat, Washington County School Board opens meeting with prayer

Chris Line, a staff attorney with the FFRF, said the practice discriminates against some members of the community.

"Minority religious people, Jewish people, Muslims, anyone else in the community is going to feel excluded by these Christian prayers starting the meetings," Line said.

He added that the practice of opening any government affiliated meeting with a prayer violates the constitution's establishment clause.

"The establishment clause has been found by the Supreme Court for a very long time to basically say, 'the government cannot in any way advance, endorse, prefer, promote religion," he said.

According to the St. George News, at the top of a recent meeting, board member Terry Hutchinson invited anyone interested to join him in a “moment of silence or in a prayer,” he said, which was different than how the prayer is normally conducted. In previous meetings, a board member offering the prayer would cross their arms, close their eyes and begin.

“I choose to do a prayer,” Hutchinson said, and proceeded to do so, ending with “in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”

This alteration to the usual way of delivering the prayer follows a request from the FFRF, asking the Washington County School Board of Education to cease delivering a prayer or reverence beginning Tuesday.

"What you have is school officials, on school property during school time advocating and including a religious prayer," Line added. "As far as I could tell it was a mostly Christian prayer. It's clear that the district and Christianity are so strongly linked and affiliated because of this practice."

Carole Drake, the vice president of the St. George interfaith council said taking prayer out of meetings is not the right move.

"I find that to be sad," Drake said.

For her, the prayer helps bring the entire community together, including its members of various faiths.

"The prayer helps build that unity, that we are together in this and we should be no matter what area of work that we're doing," she added.

The interfaith council currently leads prayers for the St. George City Council, and the Washington County Commission in a multi-denominational fashion. Drake said she hopes the interfaith council can do the same for the school board in the future, to make the reverence practice more inclusionary for the whole community.

"We would show a greater diversity just because of the diverse membership that we have," she said, referring to the interfaith council.

Line said that although diversity would be a better option than the current practice, prayer should still be excluded from the school board's meetings.

"You shouldn't ever have to think about what religion your city council is, what religion your school board is," he said. "That should be completely irrelevant to the secular job that they've been hired to do.

Line said the issue was first brought to FFRF's attention through a complaint issued by an unnamed resident of St. George. He added that FFRF is not currently seeking litigation, and is scheduled to meet with the school district to try and resolve the issue, but if the practice continues, a lawsuit would not be off the table.

In an email, The Board of Education for Washington County School District sent FOX 13 an official statement saying, "Similar to many other school districts in our region, Washington County School District holds a time for reverence/reflection/moment of silence at the beginning of our Board meetings. The Board feels this is in accordance with our community standards. The Board hopes that a spontaneous moment of silence, reflection or reverence, at the Board members discretion, helps them to further center themselves as they discuss the needs of the children throughout our communities. The Board is open to discussing this issue with both the FFRF and the Board’s own legal council to ensure that all legal requirements are met. Below are listings of other school districts locally and regionally who currently hold similar practices."

In the email, the board also pointed to several examples of local school districts who "currently hold similar practices," including the Alpine School District, Granite School District and Jordan School District.