LAS VEGAS — A school board in Nevada has decided to no longer open its public meetings with prayer following receipt of a letter from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).
FFRF had written to the Clark County School District in December to state that “a concerned local resident” had advised that the board presents prayer regularly before meetings, and during one meeting, a local minister prayed that “children be trained up righteously,” meaning in Christianity.
“It is beyond the scope of a public school board to schedule or conduct prayer as part of its meetings,” it wrote. “This practice violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”
The atheist-led organization said that the U.S. Supreme Court has differentiated school board prayer from legislative prayer, and pointed to a 2018 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that left in place an injunction preventing the Chino Valley Unified School District “from conducting, permitting or otherwise endorsing school sponsored prayer in board meetings.”
“In the end, that board paid out $282,602 in fees and costs,” FFRF wrote in bold to provide emphasis. “Obviously, this Ninth Circuit opinion is binding on your client.”
“Students have the right — and often have reason — to participate in school board meetings. It is coercive, embarrassing and intimidating for nonreligious citizens to be required to make a public showing of their nonbelief (by not rising or praying) or else to display deference toward a religious sentiment in which they do not believe, but but which their school board members clearly do,” it said.
FFRF argued that board members are free to pray in their own personal time, but the board “cannot lend its power and prestige to religion, amounting to a governmental endorsement of religion, which excludes the 24 percent of Americans who are nonreligious, including 38 percent of Americans born after 1987.”
It asked that the board cease from its “unconstitutional” prayer practice and rather “uphold the rights of conscience embodied in our First Amendment.”
On Jan. 10, Clark County School District General Counsel Eleissa Lavelle responded to FFRF, simply writing, “Please be advised that, without waiver of rights, defenses or claims, the board of school trustees will no longer begin its meetings with an invocation.”
Two area pastors, including one who is running for the school board, told KVVU-TV this week that they were disappointed to see the district capitulate so easily. They believe that the prayer practice should not be discontinued just because some prefer not to participate.
“For another organization to send something saying, ‘We don’t like this,’ and we just up and do it — yeah, can’t happen,” said youth minister Antonio Bowen. “We understand there’s freedom of religion, First Amendment rights. But it’s the principle of we’re America, you know? In God we trust.”
Bowen is calling for all area pastors to appear at Thursday night’s school board meeting to speak out about the matter. He has already met with approximately 30 pastors who plan to attend.