Despite legal threat, Washington County School Board continues praying at public meeting

ST. GEORGE — Despite receiving a legal threat imploring against praying at school board meetings, the Washington County School Board continued its tradition of offering an opening prayer at its meeting Tuesday.

Washington County School District board member Terry Hutchinson discusses his frustration with the mask mandate, St. George, Utah, July 27, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

At the top of the meeting, board member Terry Hutchinson invited anyone interested to join him in a “moment of silence or in a prayer,” he said, which was different than how the prayer is normally conducted. In previous meetings, a board member offering the prayer would cross their arms, close their eyes and begin.

“I choose to do a prayer,” Hutchinson said, and proceeded to do so, ending with “in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”

This alteration to the usual way of delivering the prayer follows a request from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national nonprofit organization, asking the Washington County School Board of Education to cease delivering a prayer or reverence beginning Tuesday.

Chris Line, an attorney for the foundation, told St. George News that while he couldn’t release the person’s name, he could say that it was a complaint from a local in St. George who informed them that the local school board meetings were beginning with prayer.

Line said after they sent a letter in May to the school district about this issue, the board responded in October saying they had adjusted their practice of delivering a prayer to open its meetings.

Despite this “adjustment,” the board opened its November meeting with a scheduled prayer. The prayer was listed as a “reverence” in the agenda and was given by board member Kelly Blake. Referring to the prayer as a “reverence” does not make it legal, Line said, adding that it is beyond the scope of a public school board to schedule or conduct prayer as part of its meetings.

“This is still a Christian prayer led by the members themselves,” he said.

Larry Bergeson, superintendent for the Washington County School District, listens to a discussion during a board meeting following the opening prayer, St. George, Utah, Dec. 8, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

Line then wrote a second letter to the school board on Nov. 25, in which the foundation asked the district to immediately refrain from scheduling and conducting prayers as part of school board meetings.”

After the Tuesday meeting, Hutchinson told St. George News they are planning to have a meeting with the foundation and allow them to make a presentation to the board.

“Normally, we’ve been dealing with them in closed session,” he said. “I don’t want to inflame the situation, but I’m not afraid of them. I mean, constitutionally, I don’t think they have a case.”

Hutchinson said they’re continuing to discuss the issue as a board on whether to make any more formal changes because of their concerns.

“But we’re willing to talk to them and listen to what they have to say,” he said. “And there are some things that we can do to perhaps do what we want to do but also to minimize their ability to sue us.”

Line said it’s illegal every time the board delivers a prayer during a public meeting, and they are putting themselves at increased risk for a lawsuit as this practice “violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

“They’re continuing to violate the law, which of course creates liabilities for the school board, not just from us or our complainant, any person attending these meetings or any parent could potentially bring a lawsuit to them.”

The lawsuit would be about bringing a stop to the praying, he said, not for monetary compensation. But because the school board is a government body, if they were sued and lost, they would have to pay the other side’s legal fees, he added.

“That’s where financial penalties can rack up,” he said.

Religion, Christianity, Praying. Man praying, hands clasped together on her Bible.

Line mentioned a recent case they won a couple of years ago when the foundation secured a court order against the Chino Valley School Board regarding its school board prayers. The court ordered the district to pay more than $200,000 in plaintiffs’ attorney fees and costs. After appeal, the court ordered the district to pay an additional $75,000 for plaintiffs’ attorney fees and costs associated with the appeal for a total of more than a quarter-million dollars.

“In the end, the school district ended up having to pay a quarter-million dollars because they wouldn’t stop praying,” he said.

Carol Drake, vice president of the St. George Interfaith Council, told St. George News that she believes prayer should be allowed at a school board meeting.

“As a member of the Catholic community, I believe we have the opportunity — and should have the opportunity — to offer a prayer even during these school board meetings,” she said. “I know God is certainly not in a prominent place as he once was years ago in our classrooms.”

Members of the St. George Interfaith Council get ready to lead the “Way of the Cross,” St. George, Utah, April 19, 2019 | Photo by Mikayla Shoup, St. George News

Drake said her recommendation would be that before any litigation might be undertaken that there be some options available to the school board for their meetings, such as allowing someone like the St. George Interfaith Council, who offer prayers in alternating faiths at the Washington County Commission and some local city council meetings.

“I’m sure we would welcome the opportunity to do so for the education board rather than totally scrap the idea of prayer,” she said, adding that she feels that considering the times, honoring some type of higher power would be better than nothing at all.

Line said that the Supreme Court has found that prayer at other meetings, such as city council meetings, is different than a prayer in a school board meeting, and that things are much different when it comes to education.

In cases such as these, he said it can be challenging for a group who is used to bringing their own religion to a meeting for so long to not feel like they are being discriminated against, and “neutrality suddenly feels like a punishment.”

“Public schools are for everyone,” he said, “which is why we have the separation of church and state in our public schools, so no one is feeling excluded or alienated.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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