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Church State Issues

Gilbert schools’ governing board reinstates prayer before meetings

Feb 1, 2014

Arizona Republic

By Karen Schmidt The Republic | Wed Jan 29, 2014 1:51 PM

Gilbert schools’ governing board on Tuesday voted 3-2 to reinstate prayer before board meetings.

The vote came after an earlier discussion at a Jan. 14 board meeting, then public comments followed by another hour of discussion among board members Tuesday.

Board president Staci Burk and board members Daryl Colvin and Julie Smith voted in favor of reinstating prayer.

Members Lily Tram and Jill Humpherys were opposed. Both said they wanted to keep the moment of silence before board meetings and were concerned about possible lawsuits if prayer is reinstated.

The board vote followed on the heels of the Mesa school board Jan. 14 decision to reinstate prayer before its meetings, reversing a November decision that stopped the practice.

Mesa school board president Mike Nichols said during a November meeting the district’s legal counsel had advised that if the board was sued for prayer before meetings, it would most likely lose in court.

The district’s legal counsel Susan Segal told the board she had drafted a resolution to reinstate prayer modeled after Mesa schools’ policy.

The GPS policy “tells the public, and anybody that wants to challenge this, what your thinking was in adopting this policy,” Segal told the board.

The policy states that participation in prayer, or invocations, is voluntary and will be held before board meetings “so that it may be clear the invocation is not considered a part of the public business.”

A conservative blog, Gilbert Watch, entreated the community to speak to the board in favor of reinstating prayer with a post that began: “He died for you. Are you too busy to say a few words on His behalf?”

Sixteen people, including four students, spoke in favor of reinstating prayer at Tuesday’s meeting. Three people spoke against.

Anita Christy, who administers Gilbert Watch, was among those who spoke to the board

“A moment of silence is nothing more than a politically correct method that many school boards have devised in order to kowtow to an intolerant minority who threatens to sue them,” Christy said.

Brett Harvey, legal counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, which describes itself on its website as a “ legal ministry that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith” also spoke.

Harvey has been involved in cases concerning prayer before city and town council meetings, including one before the U.S. Supreme Court, Town of Greece v. Galloway.

“Certainly there are some who dismiss the practice of opening with invocations, but that doesn’t make the practice unconstitutional,” Harvey told the board.

Blake Sacha spoke against opening with an invocation, saying, “We... need all the prayer we can get...what we don’t need is more controversy and adoption of this resolution will certainly create more controversy.”

Thirty-two people signed cards in favor of the resolution, but did not speak.

Tram questioned if the 32 people who signed the cards were in the audience.

“Ms. Burk, can you clarify, those 32 names - were they all here or did someone drop them off?” Tram asked.

Burk replied, “Some of them were here...I don’t know, I didn’t survey the audience before we started.”

Before the vote, Tram and Humpherys said they were worried about possible litigation.

Burk addressed the issue of possible litigation, saying "I ran for this office ... because of the disregard for the law that I had seen. If we’re talking about lawsuits and staying on the absolute safe zone, I don’t think that we’ve been doing that for quite some time.”

Following the vote, the board spent an hour discussing the policy on opening with invocations, which included how best to invite religious organizations to give invocations and how to coordinate who prays when.

The policy states that it will invite members of religious organizations within district boundaries or a 20-mile radius to deliver an invocation.

Tram repeatedly said she wanted all religions in the area to be included and that in delivering invocations, "we want to be sure we capture all religions before going back around to the same religion again."

Segal replied, "I'm reluctant to get the district in it too much in terms of regulating prayers."

Burk said she thought “first come, first serve, seems a fair way of doing it.”