Lawsuit threatened, BoE discards opening prayer

Those attending the January meeting of the Fayette County Board of Education might have noticed a change in the proceeding at the beginning of the meeting. The usual invocation presented by a local minister was replaced with a “moment of silence.”

That change will continue due to threatened litigation by a Washington, D.C. organization after a complaint over prayer at school board meetings was filed last year.

The school system in April 2012 received a letter from Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AUSCS) saying the organization had received a complaint “regarding the Fayette County School (System) Board of Education’s practice of opening its meetings with prayer. We understand that students regularly attend board meetings. We write to inform you that the inclusion of an official prayer at school board meetings violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and to ask that the prayer be discontinued.”

The letter cited a variety of legal cases while maintaining that prayer at school board meetings is unconstitutional.

“Any prayers, even non-sectarian ones in the broad Judeo-Christian tradition, send the message to adherents of minority faiths that the board does not represent their interests or welcome their participation in debates over matters of concern to the public,” the letter said. “That matter is particularly damaging when students are in the audience, as they are here. Accordingly, because the board represents all students and their families, regardless of faith, we ask that you end the board’s practice of opening its meetings with prayer.”

Complying with a Ga. Open Records request, interim Superintendent Dan Colwell on Monday released the letter and additional communication by the school system’s attorney. In a May 18, 2012 letter from attorney Denise Jackson on behalf of school system attorney Phil Hartley, Jackson reviewed the case law cited in the AUSCS letter and noted that, “With other clients, we have suggested that the board consider opening its meetings in the same way that the school day is opened for all of its students, with a moment of silence.”

Hartley followed up with a letter to AUSCS, saying that he did not necessarily agree with the legal conclusion from cited in the April letter. Hartley also requested time to review the AUSCS position.

Though the item was not brought up in regular session due to its potential for litigation, one of the criteria for executive session meetings, it is widely known today that the school system is cash-poor and could likely not afford to mount a legal challenge even if one was desired.

As for the prayers that continued through the end of 2012, Chairman Marion Key on Monday said ministers had previously been scheduled to give invocations through the end of the year so the school board elected to have those scheduled appearances continue through December.

On the former practice of having a prayer at the beginning of the meeting, school board member and former Chairman Leonard Presberg, who said he is not Christian, offered a different perspective.

“We’re a public school system. What does that say to some of those in the room who might not be Christian? (Saying a prayer) can be interpreted as exclusionary even though it’s not intended to be,” Presberg said.

And addressing some speculation in the community concerning Presberg and his previous loose affiliation with the Fayette Free Thought Society, Presberg said he did not have anything to do with the complaint made to AUSCS.