CULPEPER — The Culpeper County School Board earlier this week put to rest the issue of public prayer before its meetings and expressed support of its current moment of silence, preferring, as several members said, education over litigation.
Board member Nate Clancy made the motion to include a prayer or invocation prior to the board’s regular meetings, seconded by Marshall Keene. Clancy and Keene supported the proposal, which fell 5-2.
“I don’t think it’s a bad thing,” Clancy said, likening the board to other legislative bodies that open with prayer. “Seeking wisdom is good. We’re not educators, we’re not in the classroom every day.”
Board member Betsy Smith said she had deeply struggled with the decision.
“Prayer is the foundation of my life,” said Smith, a children’s minister at her church. “I don’t think I could survive without it.”
But when the time to vote came, Smith adopted a cautious approach.
“I don’t think it would be a good use of our allotted dollars to end up in litigation,” she said.
Board members Michelle North, Pat Baker and Rachel Carter also spoke in favor of the status quo. Chairman Anne Luckinbill did not comment, but voted with the majority.
Baker also noted that she’d been disappointed by “un-Christian-like behavior” from those lobbying for prayer that amounted to what she called “bullying tactics.”
Carter and North echoed their previous sentiments that the moment of silence should be sufficient for anyone wishing to pray and their desires to keep the School Board immune from litigation.
Fifteen members of the public — 13 in favor of instituting prayer and two not in favor — shared their thoughts at the meeting.
Chris Snider, who served on the Culpeper Town Council from 2004 to 2010 but no longer lives in Culpeper, told the board that prayers prior to council meetings “always set the tone for the evening and made me mindful.” He noted that inviting pastors from diverse backgrounds to provide invocations was educational.
“Our children are the foundation of our future society and we owe it to them to strengthen them in mind, body and spirit,” said Snider, who then introduced and read letters to the board from 7th District U.S. Rep. Dave Brat, R-Henrico, and 17th District state Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania.
Brat and Reeves penned letters to the board supporting the proposal brought forth in December by Keene.
“It is a time-honored tradition for the United States Congress to begin each legislative day with an invocation,” Brat wrote, noting that Culpeper pastor Brad Hales of Reformation Lutheran Church delivered an invocation on the House floor several years ago.
“Seeking daily guidance from God is supported strongly by both political parties in Congress and also allows us to share local leaders in the faith community with the entire nation,” the congressman wrote.
Reeves wrote that state senators “find our morning prayer to be a time of reflection and unity between members.” He suggested the board establish guidelines by which “individuals from all over the county could be invited to attend a meeting and offer an invocation.”
“This has the added bonus of being a learning opportunity, which I know as a school board is something that is important to all of you,” Reeves added.
Sherry Crissman read from a letter written by 30th District Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, also in support of prayer before meetings by legislative bodies before offering her own words of agreement.
Resident Kim West told the board she believes the silent moment is acceptable.
“You all are role models for our children. If an invocation is not allowed at school, then I don’t believe it should be allowed here,” West said. “I’m a true believer in prayer, and I pray for you all the time because you have a big job to do. But spiritual bullying is just as big as regular bullying and pushing religion on people, different religions can be offensive.”
On Feb. 26, the School Board publicly released a 12-page memo prepared by its attorney, Rodney Young, to explore legal issues related to opening meeting with prayer.
Young’s legal advice sought to answer whether a school board can open its meetings with sectarian prayer without violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution, referring to language stating “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Citing several relevant court cases that allow legislative bodies leeway to invite and include sectarian prayer, Young concluded that the Culpeper board would find itself in uncharted waters.
The attorney warned that “the law on this issue is unsettled in Virginia. And, whether the 4th Circuit or the Supreme Court would treat school boards like other governmental bodies (towns, cities and counties) is equally unsettled.”
“School boards have a unique role and a much closer direct involvement with students, who courts have often described as more susceptible to the coercive powers and influences of the government — in this case, as represented in the form of the school board,” Young concluded.
According to schools Superintendent Tony Brads, Young’s initial research cost the division about $8,000 and could reach upwards of $12,000.