by Laura L. Willis, Messenger Editor
More than 300 people packed into the Franklin County High School auditorium on Oct. 7 for the Franklin County School Board’s monthly work session that included discussion of prayer at Parent-Teacher Organization meetings in the district. Chris McDonough, Sewanee’s representative to the board, was the lone voice in supporting a moment of silence at PTO meetings.
In September, the Franklin County School Board and the North Lake PTO were contacted by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). FFRF asked that the North Lake PTO halt its practice of opening meetings with Christian prayer. FFRF has brought lawsuits against numerous schools and organizations across the country with similar charges. After reviewing the situation with the school board’s legal counsel, Rebecca Sharber, director of schools, advised the North Lake PTO officers to have a moment of silence rather than praying aloud.
At issue is how the North Lake PTO fits within the school board’s policies. If it is a school-sponsored organization, then it is governed by board policies; currently North Lake PTO is listed as one of the “Recognized School Support Organizations 2012–13” on the school system website. Policy 4.805 states: “There shall be no school-sponsored or school-directed public prayer at any school-sponsored or school-directed activity, but a period of silence shall be observed.”
Policy 2.404 (p. 2, line 14) states: “The school support organization shall abide by all applicable Federal, State and local laws, ordinances and regulations in its activities.”
School board chairman Kevin Caroland called the meeting to order. At the point on the agenda for a moment of silence, a majority of the audience prayed aloud. After the pledge of allegiance, Caroland reminded the audience that they would be no votes at this meeting, and that public comment was not allowed. “This is not a public meeting,” he said. “This is a meeting in public.” Caroland then yielded time to State Sen. Janice Bowling and State Rep. David Alexander, who addressed the crowd.
Bowling said she believed the Constitution “cannot purge all religion from the public square.” She said she had been in touch with the Congressional Prayer Caucus and representatives of Liberty Counsel for support. She said both groups were praying for Franklin County and would offer legal assistance if the school system was sued. “This is our heritage,” she said. “Public prayer is not unconstitutional.”
Alexander spoke briefly to the group. “I am asking the board to draw a line in the sand. Enough is enough,” he said. “It is time to push back.” Alexander said that if the school board decides that prayer at PTO meetings is allowed and other faiths want to pray too, “I say, bring it on. I’m not afraid of the competition.”
Both Bowling and Alexander received standing ovations by most of the audience for their remarks. Caroland called on Sharber to provide an overview of the situation.
Sharber said she asked North Lake PTO to discontinue its practice of praying before meetings for a number of reasons: The PTO meets in the North Lake school cafeteria; PTO is a “quasi-school event;” a spoken prayer might alienate or exclude parents who hold other views; and schoolchildren were often present who might not understand the difference between a PTO meeting and a regular school day. She said a moment of silence offered the same opportunity without the problems of praying aloud.
The board members then offered their opinions about the situation [see story below for their quotes].
Chris McDonough, representative for Sewanee, Sherwood and Keith Springs, offered his opinion.
“I am afraid I disagree with all of you,” he said. “North Lake is an excellent school, and we want to make sure as many parents as possible participate in the PTO.” Prayer at the meetings could be a “stumbling block,” he said. “These are things that make people feel excluded.”
McDonough’s remarks were met with boos from members of the audience.
“There are people in this county who don’t go to your churches and people who don’t believe what you do,” he said. “A moment of silence lets people be together, and no one feels alienated,” he said.
Caroland had to quiet the crowd so that McDonough could finish his comments.
“We want to make sure everyone [at the PTO meeting] feels comfortable and included,” McDonough said.
Robert Wheeler, attorney for the Franklin County Board of Education, wrote a letter to Sharber encouraging the board to “err on the side of caution” and to limit prayer at PTO meetings.
Wheeler wrote, “It’s a close question, but if you err, I suggest you err on the side of caution. I would instruct them to cease and desist. If they continue, you have taken a stance, and no plaintiff should be able to recover from the board or the school system since the practice is clearly not your policy, and you have issued directives to the contrary.”
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Liberty Counsel is affiliated with Liberty University Law School in Lynchburg, Va.; it provides legal assistance in cases related to religious liberty, abortion and the family. The organization is best known for its campaigns to ensure that “public displays of religion” are maintained during the Christmas holiday.
The board will meet in regular session at 6:30 p.m., Monday, Oct. 14, in the Franklin County High School auditorium.