Fla. School District to Decide on School Prayer Policy

The right to pray is still a hot topic in the Sunshine State. The Clay County, Fla., School District has been involved in a religious liberty debate over the legality of prayer on school property since last November.

During their January school board meeting last week, members decided that they would hold a workshop sometime between Feb. 27 and March 2 to discuss adopting a policy on school prayer.

School board member Charlie Van Zant told The Christian Post that he, along with the School Board chairman and School Board attorney, will talk to different law firms in the next few weeks about attending the workshop and presenting different perspectives on the constitutional right of school prayer.

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Two Christian law firms, Liberty Counsel and the Alliance Defense Fund, have offered their services in the matter.

The fight over school prayer surfaced last November in the county when local resident Ron Baker, pastor of Russell Baptist Church in Green Cove Springs, Fla., was told he could no longer pray at the flagpoles of the county's local elementary schools.

Baker had been praying at these flagpoles with parents and students before school at the start of each school week for over 12 years.

But after an atheist group, The Freedom from Religion Foundation, sent the Clay County School District a letter informing the board that prayer at the flagpole was unconstitutional, Baker was told to stop. They say in their letter: "It is grossly inappropriate for principals, teachers, other public school employees, or outside adults to actively participate in or promote student-run religious organizations and activities."

FFRF also said that if Baker did not cease the prayer immediately they would seek legal action against the school district.

According to the Jacksonville daily newspaper, School Attorney Bruce Bickner for the Clay County School Board said that praying at the flagpole is against the law, because "it is a violation of the United States Constitution for a teacher, school administrator or other school district employee to join in a prayer session during their work time."

But the American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian legal group, pointed out that neither the preacher nor the children participating in the prayers are school district employees.

The president of Biblical Concepts Ministries, Dr. Raymond Johnson, has been following the debate closely and addressed the Clay County, Fla., School Board regarding the biblical right to pray at public school flagpoles this week.

He told CP that up until now Baker had "been praying there for years, with no problem." He also said no students or teachers were solicited, and they participated on a voluntary basis.

In a letter to school Superintendent Ben Wortham, Liberty Counsel states that FFRF ignores the fact that individuals participating in school prayer "have First Amendment rights, and all staff and teachers may exercise them when they are not 'on the clock' or otherwise acting in their official capacity as representatives of the school district."

In a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1990, Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, the court ruled: "It is true that ordinary religious speech by private persons cannot establish religion."

The Liberty Counsel asserts, "This means, that as long as the speech or prayer that occurs at the flagpole events is characterized as private speech, it cannot establish a religion and cannot lead to liability of the school district for violation of the Establishment Clause."

The Liberty Counsel letter also said the Constitution "does not reject the possibility that some religious speech may be truly private even though it occurs in the school house …. Prayer at school functions is only unconstitutional when it is endorsed, supported, or coerced by the school."

At the November school board meeting the five member board voted 3-2 to ban Baker from school property. Then in December, it voted to reverse the decision.

For now, Baker is continuing to pray with students at a location off of school property. Van Zant said that the average Clay County citizen supports Rev. Baker's right to pray and more than "two-thirds support prayer in schools."

We're not talking about "walking in the classroom and teaching Sunday school," he said. "We're talking about parents and students gathering in small numbers on school property, and praying in small groups for five minutes."

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