At the Flagler County School Board Tuesday evening Janet McDonald, the board chair, called the meeting to order, as was noted on the agenda. The Flagler Palm Coast High School Junior ROTC presented the colors, as was noted on the agenda. The National Anthem followed, as was noted on the agenda. Then Jeanine Clontz, a pastor at Flagler Beach United Methodist Church, took the mike and said: “Will you bow in prayer with me”–not a request so much as a command.
That was not on the agenda.
“Gracious and loving God, we call on you to surround all of our schools here locally and around the nation with your protection,” the pastor said, going on to pray for protection from acts of violence and bullying, with words for educators to be “filled with grace,” before she told the audience, as at a service: “You may be seated.”
There were more than a few double-takes in the commission meeting room. There hasn’t been a prayer at a school board meeting since at least as far back as 1973, when board members abandoned what had been an off-and-on custom going back to 1917–more off than on, according to a cursory review of minutes through the decades–of having one of their own say a prayer to start meetings.
The prayer had not been discussed by school board members before Clontz spoke it, let alone a moment of prayer–as opposed to the traditional moment of silence–approved. Superintendent Jim Tager did not know about it, nor did School Board Attorney Kristy Gavin, Gavin said Wednesday evening. It was all McDonald’s doing, unilaterally.
The addition of the prayer on Tuesday evening’s meeting was a violation of school board rules, because it was not part of the agenda, nor had board members agreed to make it so, as they could have. Since it wasn’t an agenda item, a board member or the school board attorney could have immediately objected by raising a point of order, and they’d have been right. But none did.
“It was kind of like, I think we were all a little not sure what was going on, and once it happens, you’re kind of like, OK, well, it’s already happened,” Gavin said.
Dance did bring up the matter almost two hours later in the same meeting, describing himself as still “a little confused as to the opening of today’s meeting.” He asked McDonald if this was just for that meeting, or if she had other intentions.
McDonald reiterated what she’d said at the beginning of the meeting, when she said that the pastor was “starting off a new tradition, I hope, to include the members of our faith communities and our support communities out there.” McDonald couched the idea in terms of organizations providing resources. “One of the big initiatives we have is the mental health and personal wellness initiative, and I think our faith community plays a big part in that.” Such organizations have never been barred from sharing their message with the board, either in public comment periods or, if the board agrees, through agenda items.
McDonald did not explain what the prayer had to do with it, however, though she said that whenever she’s gone to Tallahassee, she’s always been “impressed” at every meeting getting started with “a reminder about that we’re here to do the work of the people, and we’re here to do community government, and so I thought that was just one thing we haven’t tapped into even though we talk about it. So a little opportunity for people from the community, whether they have an organized group or they just provide services in that light, I think it would be nice to have them come in and start a little–just a little reminder how the community is working.”
The genesis of the United Methodist pastor’s appearance remained vague. McDonald said she’d “put it out there to the community and several members of the community were interested, both people in leadership organizations, in faith organizations, and otherwise,” she said, before again speaking of the mental health angle.
McDonald still skirted the issue of the prayer. “As an item I think we need to discuss this because it’s kind of a major shift,” Dance said, “it seems to me like we need board buy-in.”
McDonald said it was a “past practice,” which is true, but a practice almost four decades in the past, and never tied, at the time, to McDonald’s idea of tapping into mental health issues.
The board agreed to place the idea on a September workshop, when Gavin is expected to provide guidance on the issue.
“When it happened, immediately I had staff say, is that legal,” Gavin said in an interview today. “And my answer is, well, yes, it’s legal to do an invocation. And they said, well, I thought that there’s a supreme court case. Well, that’s not what the supreme court case says. The supreme court says it’s still permissible. There’s parameters to it. And we need to make sure we don’t stray from those parameters, because if you do, that’s when you can get in trouble.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2014 in a 5-4 decision that invocations at the beginning of meetings were permissible so long as the government agency was not condoning, editing or reviewing the content of the invocation beforehand. “So long as the town maintains a policy of nondiscrimination, the Constitution does not require it to search beyond its borders for non-Christian prayer givers in an effort to achieve religious balancing,” Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has since retired, wrote for the majority, the requirement of a policy clearly explicit. The decision also specified that “any member of the public is welcome in turn to offer an invocation reflecting his or her own convictions.” The convictions don’t have to be denominational.
The decision also specifies that nothing coercive is permissible in an invocation–including a pastor’s (or a board member’s) command to stand, to remain standing, or to sit, as both McDonald and the pastor commanded at Tuesday’s meeting.
“Although board members themselves stood, bowed their heads, or made the sign of the cross during the prayer,” Kennedy wrote in the 2014 decision, “they at no point solicited similar gestures by the public. Respondents point to several occasions where audience members were asked to rise for the prayer. These requests, however, came not from town leaders but from the guest ministers, who presumably are accustomed to directing their congregations in this way and might have done so thinking the action was inclusive, not coercive.”
The decision also specified that any attempt to proselytize is impermissible.
But after she offered the invocation, Clontz went on not so much to proselytize as to pitch her church–a violation of Flagler County School Board rules, which forbid solicitation: ““Our church is a church that knows that ministry happens when we leave the walls of the church, it happens out in the community, and so everything that we do at Flagler Beach United Methodist is open to the community.” She then outlined the church’s offerings, from cancer care to homeless outreach to volunteer work.
“When I think of invocations,” Gavin said, “I think of what she did at the very beginning of the meeting–her prayer of let’s all be safe, no bullying. The second part, I don’t know who if anyone was aware of that taking place. I don’t even know if Ms. McDonald was aware of that taking place.”
A survey of six of the most conservative counties in the Panhandle–Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Holmes, Washington and Escambia–reveals that Escambia alone includes an invocation at the beginning of its school board meetings. Among local governments, all have a moment of silence, none have an invocation, with one exception: Bunnell, where Bunnell city commissioners themselves, in clear violation even of the 2014 ruling, take turns to offer the prayer at the beginning of the meeting, as commissioners (and where those who object are invited to wait outside).
Gavin said she would recommend against that approach, if the rest of the board was inclined to agree to invocations in the future. If it were, Gavin said, it would have to be ready to make room for Wiccans, atheists and any other type of believer or non-believer who asks to provide the invocation. Regulating that sort of content is prohibited, which is why most local governments prefer to avoid the potential dilemma–and potential lawsuits, in increasingly diverse communities–by avoiding explicit invocations and sticking with moments of silence.