Tuscarora School Board considers dropping prayer from meetings

October 08, 2012|By JENNIFER FITCH |

MERCERSBURG, Pa. — After prayerfully opening its meetings for decades, the Tuscarora School Board is considering whether “thy will be done” might need to fall to a court’s will.

At issue is whether a longtime board practice of praying in unison aloud in meetings can continue in light of Doe vs. Indian River School District, a 2011 ruling by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. That ruling found that prayer at school district meetings violates First Amendment rights.

The Tuscarora School Board’s legal counsel offered advice about whether to say the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of meetings, Board President Clifford Smith said Monday.

“We were told to stop,” he said, saying the solicitor advised against continuing the practice and trying to fight any potential lawsuits related to the matter.

The Lord’s Prayer was recited at the start of Monday’s meeting, a practice that has gone on “for as long as anyone can remember,” Smith said after the meeting.

Board member Daniel Reeder said he did not want to wait for a lawsuit to be filed because it could prove costly.

“We need to be proactive, make the decision now and not be reactive. ... We’re talking about spending the taxpayers’ money to fight something we can’t win,” Reeder said.

“What we may personally believe should take a back seat to what we’re doing as board members,” he said.

Daryl Hunsberger said he and the board members need to abide by laws.

Carl Silverman, of Pennsylvania Non-Believers of York (Pa.), and Ernest Perce V, Pennsylvania state director for American Atheists, recently pushed for and won the elimination of the Lord’s Prayer being included in Greencastle-Antrim School Board meetings.

Silverman and Pearce were not present at Monday’s meeting.

Tuscarora board members Larry Funk and Erich Hawbaker lamented during Monday’s board meeting that they could be challenged by out-of-area residents. Hawbaker commented that those people should instead focus their time on the city of Harrisburg, Pa., which has significant debt problems.

“They (Harrisburg) could probably have used some prayers before the decisions they made,” said Funk, who said he has had no problem standing respectfully during ceremonies rooted in religions other than his own.

“I think it is a bullying issue,” board member Donald Piper said.

Smith said he cannot justify expelling a child for breaking school policy, which would essentially be the school’s laws, if the board goes against a court’s decision.

“Morally, ethically, I believe we have the right to stand here and pray, but we’re in the business of teaching kids,” he said.

Board member Thomas Black disagreed with Smith’s reasoning.

“We’re giving in, and we’re teaching our kids to be complacent,” Black said.

The board reached no decision on whether to continue praying during meetings. Smith told the board members to continue to think about it before trying to reach consensus “based on reason and based on faith.”

“The realist in me says if the battle cannot be won, don’t fight it,” Hawbaker said.

During a public comment session, district resident Allen Piper challenged Hawbaker on his remark about not fighting a battle that cannot be won.

“I don’t buy that for one minute,” he said.

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