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Prayer returns to Mesa schools meetings

Feb 15, 2014

Arizona Republic

Screw the US and Arizona Constitutions, we are royal government rulers and can do what ever we feel like.

Prayer returns to Mesa schools meetings

By Cathryn Creno The Republic | Wed Feb 12, 2014 10:46 AM

Despite the threat of a lawsuit, prayer has returned to the Mesa Public Schools governing board room.

More than 100 people stood Tuesday evening with heads bowed as the Mesa Fire Department’s chaplain, Tom McSherry, asked God to “bless (the board) with wisdom and discernment ” and for “blessings on the children, for we know the struggles some have each day just to be in school.”

The prayer took place before the official start of the Feb. 11 meeting. Last month, the board adopted a new policy that allows district staff to invite leaders of a variety of religions to pray before the start of meetings.

McSherry, who also is the president and chief executive officer of a Tempe mental health organization called Crisis Preparation and Recovery Inc., called it “an honor” to be the first to lead the Mesa schools’ audience in prayer under the new policy.

Prayer “is a very needed thing,” he said.

The Madison, Wisc.-based Freedom from Religion Foundation doesn’t share that view. It sent a letter to the district in October asking the board to “refrain from scheduling prayers” and is now considering taking Mesa schools to court over the issue.

“Organized prayer in schools is unconstitutional,” foundation attorney Andrew Seidel said in an interview with The Republic. “We are thinking very seriously about going to court over this. And if we go to court, we will win.”

Seidel said listing prayer on a school meeting agenda violates the Constitution. It doesn’t matter if the prayer technically takes place before the gavel, he said.

An attorney for the pro-prayer Alliance Defending Freedom in Scottsdale, however, contends that Mesa Public Schools is within its rights to have prayer before -- or after the start -- of board meetings.

Brett Harvey also says his organization is prepared to help the district if it winds up in court over the prayer issue.

“Opening meetings with prayer is a time-honored tradition,” Harvey said.

He noted that a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals three-judge panel last March upheld a lower court decision supporting prayer at a City Council meeting led by religious leaders of a variety of faiths.

Mesa’s five-member school board voted unanimously Jan. 14 in favor of the new policy to invite leaders from Mesa religious organizations, including churches, synagogues and mosques, to pray before the start of meetings.

The prayer is part of a new pre-meeting program that includes entertainment by student musicians. The Franklin East Elementary School honor band performed at the Feb. 11 pre-meeting program..

The board’s Jan. 14 vote reversed a November decision to replace a formal prayer with a moment of silence.

In November, then-board President Mike Nichols incorrectly told The Republic that the panel opted for the moment of silence because the U.S. Supreme Court was hearing arguments at that time about whether municipal governments violated the Constitution and endorsed religion by opening their meetings with prayers. He did not disclose that the board had been contacted by Freedom from Religion.

Meanwhile, there are Mesa district residents on both sides of the issue.

Going to the moment of silence sparked e-mail criticism from prayer supporters. Bringing back the prayer generated criticism from residents who believe prayer at board meetings is inappropriate.

A sample:

“I don’t ask for a particular way to pray, just seek for a cause bigger than yourself to help you make tough decisions for those whose lives you touch and serve,” wrote Jenna Hudson.

“When Christ rose to heaven, he sent the Holy Spirit to guide us in all of our decisions, which includes work decisions,” wrote Kerry Budinger.

“I think that calling on board members and citizens to rise and pray is coercive, embarrassing and beyond the scope of secular government,” wrote Crystal Meeks.

“As a resident of Mesa, I am appalled to hear that the school board is going to waste time and taxpayer dollars by including prayer in school board meetings,” wrote Jane Koepsel.

Mike Hughes, who became board president in January, said he is satisfied with the new prayer policy and does not foresee the issue coming up for discussion again.

“I think we have got a solid policy now,” he said. “We’ve done everything we can to meet the concerns.”


Superintendent: District erred in not releasing anti-prayer letter

Mesa Public Schools officials made a mistake when they failed to provide the district governing board members and the media with copies of an October letter from the Madison, Wisc.-based Freedom from Religion Foundation that asked the board to stop its tradition of praying at meetings.

“It is our understanding that the board begins every meeting with a prayer,” said attorney Andrew Seidel in the Oct. 8 letter.

“We understand these prayers are sectarian and include Christian reference such as addressing a ‘Heavenly Father’ or ending with ‘In Your name, Amen’. ... Public school boards may not include prayer as part of its scheduled meetings. Federal courts have struck down school board practices that include this religious ritual.”

Seidel said he sent the letter after a member of his organization attended a Mesa school board meeting last fall and called to ask if the board’s prayers were legal.

Superintendent Michael Cowan said although the letter from Freedom from Religion was addressed to then-board President Mike “Nichols and members of the board,” district attorney Tom Pickrell filed it after responding instead of sending it on to the board.

Cowan said Pickrell told the board about the letter’s content in an executive session but did not share copies of it.

Freedom from Religion’s letter also was not provided to The Arizona Republic, despite a formal agreement that the district share correspondence that board members receive. Letters to school board members are considered public documents under the Arizona Public Records Law.

The letter to the Mesa board surfaced in January, when Freedom from Religion provided its correspondence with both Mesa and Gilbert school officials to the Republic.

Cowan called the district’s failure to provide the board and the newspaper with the information “an oversight” and apologized. Correspondence between Pickrell and the Wisconsin group was included the board’s Feb. 11 pre-meeting packet of documents and also given to the Republic.