Thursday, September 8, 2016

Time to Pray

It’s always time to pray. And this political season makes the need even more urgent.

But today I’m talking about a specific threat to religious freedom.

I got word yesterday from a friend about a situation at our local school district board meetings. These meetings have begun with prayer since the school district began. All of the board members (mostly not conservative, or not as conservative as the population in our area) want to keep the prayer. But they have been contacted by the Freedom from Religion Foundation with the threat of a lawsuit if they continue to allow the meetings to open with prayer. The district lawyer has recommended that they change from prayer to a moment of silence, in an effort to avoid spending taxpayer money (that should go to educating students) on defense against the lawsuit.
image from here

My friend is recruiting people to attend the meeting and recite The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) during the moment of silence.

For local readers who might be interested, the meeting is this coming Monday, September 12th, at 6:00 PM at the Instructional Support Center, 10300 Jones Road, Houston, Texas.

There has been some back-and-forth on an email loop, which I’m finding enlightening. I have a few overarching questions:

·         What religion is being established by the US Government when a local independent school district in Texas has a prayer, offered by citizens of various religions, to begin their public board meetings?
·         Why is the threat of a lawsuit treated as a lawsuit lost?
·         Why are people who are so intolerant that they organize and sue to stamp out any vestige of religion in their country—even in a place where they are not present and have no interest—not held accountable and thrown out of court for their attack on the Constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens?
From my friend’s email, here is what we know so far (edited to omit names):

At the last school district Board Meeting, the traditional prayer was replaced by a Moment of Silence. When I asked why the change, I was told that the school district was contacted by the Freedom from Religion Foundation and that they threatened the school district with a lawsuit if they did not discontinue the prayer at the Board meetings. Speaking with the Superintendent and the Board Chairwoman, I was told that the Board was unanimously in favor of keeping the prayer; however, the CFISD attorney recommended that the Board not put the taxpayers at risk, therefore the Board decided to end the traditional prayer at the Board meetings.
As a result of that decision, I have contacted several organizations that specialize in religious liberty and found one, the American Center for Law and Justice (Jay Sekulow’s Group), that was interested in the issue, but needed to speak with someone from the Board, and I forwarded that information to the school district attorney.  So far, I have gotten no update from the Board on this situation.
My friend explains how this foundation could even know whether we have a prayer at these meetings:

In the State of Texas, School Boards in cities with a population over 10,000 people are required to video their Board Meetings and make them available to the public.  This makes it easy for groups like the Freedom from Religion Foundation to target school districts even through the group doesn’t represent anyone within those districts.  The Superintendent told me that our school district was the largest ISD [independent school district] in the state that still had prayer as a part of the Board meetings.
I believe it is time that we stand up to liberal organizations like the Freedom from Religion Foundation before they systematically remove all mention of our nation’s religious heritage from our schools.
There has been some communication since the first email with the district lawyer. She says,

I will give the caveat that I think proliferation of a discussion about planning to pray during the moment of silence could possibly be used against the school district in the future unfortunately. 
Another friend in the loop offered additional suggestions:

It would seem to me that if a group of citizens wish to speak, as is always available on the school board agenda, at an open Board meeting, and that speech is a prayer supporting the students, teachers, and leaders of our community, that is a positive action for all.
The courts have routinely affirmed that if prayer or other expressions of faith is student initiated, that is a clear First Amendment right.
A group of us doing the same, expressing our faith in support of the community at a Board meeting, is a parallel—citizen initiated. A simple, routine traditional event in our culture.
Then if the Freedom from Religion Foundation wants to stop it, they need to take action against our group and not waste tax payer money. Obviously, they become the aggressor against first amendment rights. The Board can be passive as the courts have repeatedly declared.
I think this writer has a good point. There is more that can be done in future meetings. And there’s something to be said for citizen-led action.

The lawyer does later respond to our current plans, with due lawyerly concern:

The audience reciting a prayer during the moment of silence gives me legal concerns for two reasons.  First, there is case law that invalidates moments of silence if they are a pretense to prayer.  If citizens audibly pray during the designated silence, this could call the practice into question and give rise to a challenge to its constitutionality.  Second, the meeting of the Board is a meeting in the public and not of the public.  As such, we routinely admonish audience members who interject during the meeting.  If we allowed audience members to recite prayers during the moment of silence, but did not allow other types of speech to be interjected during the meeting, I am concerned this could be challenged as an endorsement/establishment of religious speech.
The first, about case law: I think that means the way previous cases were ruled determines what the law is considered to be—rather than what the law actually says. Our supreme law, in case you’ve forgotten (apparently some judges have forgotten), says, as the first point in the First Amendment, that the Congress shall make no law that establishes a national religion, and Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion. Courts, in theory, can only rule on what the law is; they do not make it. So, of course the judicial branch of the federal government can make no law prohibiting the people in northwest Houston, Texas, from opening a public school board meeting with prayer, as they have always done.

As to the second point, the public does have a process for speaking at the meetings. It may require coming early enough to sign up to be put on the agenda. A person could sign up, ask to be placed first on the agenda, and then offer a prayer as their contribution to the meeting. Some out-of-state group observing only online (and only for the purpose of finding something to sue about) would have a hard time proving that the Board was complicit in the supposed sin of allowing prayer, since the Board doesn’t know what anyone is going to say until they get up to speak. Even if someone did that meeting after meeting, to disallow that person to do it would be to presume the person planned religious speech and disallow it on that basis, which would clearly violate the First Amendment.
Another email from the group reminds us that the US House has an Office of the Chaplain, and the House still opens its proceedings with prayer.

It simply is not illegal to pray in a public setting in America. It cannot even be claimed to be offensive to non-religious people who aren’t present and don’t belong to the community.

So why give in to the threat?

Because justice in America is expensive. Deep pockets often win over justice.

But we have a lawyer. I am making assumptions here about this lawyer’s daily workload, but isn’t this what we already pay her for?

Plus, my friend has already been recruiting nonprofit experts, such as ACLJ, who take on just this kind of case. They are able to do their pro bono work, because concerned citizens donate to the cause. (Just like concerned atheists donate to the cause of trying to eliminate religion from America.) We might be able to win justice without sacrificing taxpayer dollars intended to educate students.

This Freedom from Religion Foundation has spent exactly nothing threatening a lawsuit. The least we can do is let them spend their hard-begged-for donations on an actual lawsuit. We shouldn’t get the vapors at the first breath of a threat to our most essential basic freedom of belief.
image from here

Maybe we should use that belief, and trust that our God is a mighty God. We will honor Him. We will ask for His guidance in our Board meetings and other public gatherings. And maybe He will help us fight this battle.

It starts with a prayer, this coming Monday.

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