The American Humanist Association — a national organization that defends nontheistic views and secular governance — has reached out to the Lee County Board of Education expressing concerns over a “proposal” to allow prayer in board meetings.
In an email addressed to board members Lynn Smith and Mark Akinosho and school attorney Jimmy Love Sr., AHA legal director David Niose wrote that he was contacted by “a parent with children in the [Lee County] school system” who said he and other local citizens were concerned the board was considering a motion on the subject. Niose, citing numerous First Amendment cases on prayer in public government meetings, said the purpose of his email was to inform the board that the proposed change in policy “to inject religion into a school district activity” was a violation of the law.
If there is such a proposal, it hasn’t been made in a public meeting.
Board chairman Mark Akinosho, a pastor away from his duties on the board, said he is not aware of such a proposal and that as board chairman, he will follow the law and board policy. Policy Code 7300 of the LCBOE policy manual states school employees must “refrain from using school employment, contacts and privileges to promote partisan politics, personal or regilious views or propaganda of any kind.”
Akinosho said he uses the “moment of silence” that begins every meeting — right after the call to order — as a time for personal prayer. “I do this without calling attention to myself,” he said. “But I am only one member.”
New board member Sherry-Lynn Womack said she thinks the idea [of a proposal] is worth looking into. She said she favors “an invocation” to start all legislative meetings and views the moment of silence as a “politically correct compromise” Christian officials have accepted to avoid threat of lawsuits.
“This kind of momentary pause does not fulfill what many, if not most Christians accept as an invitation to God to guide and direct the work of our legislative body,” she said. “Why should we be denied the right to publicly acknowledge him and to invite his participation in our affairs? In fact, I think we dishonor [God] when we reject prayer in our meetings.”
Should Lee County’s board move forward with a proposal, it wouldn’t be alone. The most public case in recent years has involved the Chino Valley Unified School District in California, which was sued in 2014 by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and members of the district and community for “reciting prayers, Bible readings and proselytizing at board meetings.” That board changed its policy in 2016 to restrict prayer during the public portions of meetings.
The U.S. Supreme Court, however, ruled in 2014 in favor of allowing the Town of Greece (N.Y.) to open legislative sessions with a prayer led by volunteer chaplains. The Court said the practice did not violate the Establishment Clause “when the practice is consistent with the tradition long followed by Congress and state legislatures,” as long as the town did not discriminate against minority faiths in determining who may offer pray and did not coerce the participation of those who wished not to adhere.
That being said, Niose’s email states “in Town of Greece v. Galloway, the recent high court legislative prayer case, the court was careful to point out that it has consistently applied Lemon in school contexts,” referencing the case Lemon v. Kurtzman, which “strikes governmental practices when the purpose is religious or the effect is to advance or favor religion.”