The Flagler County School Board will not change a custom in place since the early 1970s: four school board members opted against opening meetings with a prayer or an invocation, whatever the context, rebuffing School Board Chairman Janet McDonald’s effort since August to invite members of the clergy to pray and spotlight their “wellness” and mental health efforts on behalf of the district.
One such pastor opened a board meeting in August at McDonald’s invitation, but to the surprise of the other board members, the superintendent and the board attorney. The pastor offered a Christian prayer and pitched her church’s works in a rather overt bit of marketing. A controversy ensued, dividing the community–and the school board, which has had three discussions about it since. Today’s was the latest, at a workshop, essentially ending the matter but leaving the door open for “spotlights” or “thoughts of the day” that will make room for members of the faith-based community to be heard, at least in the context of their works on behalf of the district.
In the end, School Board member Colleen Conklin, who had been conflicted over the issue, opted against it. She said she had no doubt that prayer at meetings was legal and permissible. But citing her own research, she said “almost every single one of them eventually spirals down into a complete circus show, literally google it and watch,” she said. “School board meeting prayers, all you have to do is watch videos, and it turns into satanic members hailing Satan to come down over this district.” She also rejected the occasional claim that prayer has been banished from schools. “Prayer is allowed in school. Students can pray. They’re more than allowed to pray,” Conklin said.
School Board member Maria Barbosa, who had appeared to lean toward McDonald’s preference, echoed Conklin’s concerns, and board member Andy Dance added another point against opening the door to prayers: “We had the state Board of Education here, and there wasn’t a prayer with them,” he said, citing the state board’s visit last week, as well as figures provided by School Board Attorney Kristy Gavin that showed just under half of Florida’s school districts having prayers or invocations at board meetings. “We’re in the midst of trying to hire a superintendent, and I want us to be a unified county. I want us to have a sole purpose. I just feel at this point it’s kind of tearing us apart a little bit, the discussion about it. It shouldn’t, but half the people are for it, half are against it, and I want us to be unified in our purpose . Right now it’s just selecting the next best superintendent for Flagler schools.”
Board members recognized McDonald’s good intentions. McDonald herself appeared almost surprised by the blowback, though she disagreed with Conklin, who said McDonald took “a lot of heat” over the issue.
“Not necessarily heat. It’s just being the receiver of people’s opinions. I don’t feel it’s heat. I just think it’s really interesting to see the responses from the community,” McDonald said. But McDonald also apologized. After describing at length what had been her intention–to open the way for many groups, not just religious groups, to be highlighted at meetings and to offer their own invocations–she was critical of the “knee-jerk reaction” to the original invocation. “It seemed like it was a practice that was done before, and then wasn’t done, without any real reason for not doing it anymore.” She offered an explanation about how the invocation ended up on the agenda, saying “it wasn’t a part of the meeting” (which was not accurate: the meeting had started, the National Anthem had just been sung). “I didn’t really think that it would impact and insult other board members,” McDonnald continued, “so I apologized if people felt I was going rogue and they felt I was impacting their part of that decision-making. That wasn’t what it was for. It was just to be a quick snippet to get us started.”
There were a few alternative suggestions during the workshop this afternoon. Conklin proposed inviting the very groups and clergy members McDonald had in mind, but to meet by the flagpole outside of the Government Services Building 15 minutes before the meeting, and have a prayer there. Another suggestion was to invite students to provide a Thought of the Day, as is the practice on occasion in Pasco and Duval counties (Duval also provides for prayers). Yet another suggestion was to incorporate McDonald’s wish to highlight certain groups in the Spotlight segment of the meeting. “With the spotlights within the program we have such flexibility,” Dance said.
And board member Trevor Tucker, who’s opposed invocations since August, said he didn’t want school district staff burdened by more responsibilities to ensure either that the right number of clergy were invited and rotated through the invocation system or to ensure that the district stayed on the legal side of things. Either way, he said, even if prayers in and of themselves were not a big deal, “it becomes a bigger deal if we do it.”
Still, the nearly hour-long discussion was not without its own new, controversial ideas, some unexpectedly put forth by Gavin, the attorney. When Conklin was describing the “circus” that the board could be inviting to its meetings, and said members of the public could not be prevented from offering up strange invocations, Gavin said they could: she cited one district where members of the public have to fill out comment cards that are then vetted for appropriateness, and those speaking on topics deemed inappropriate would not be allowed to speak. But Gavin was offering up an example of content vetting that would likely be as controversial, or more so, than an invocation at the beginning of a meeting, since courts have routinely ruled that in public forums where the public is granted a segment to address a board, governments are limited as to what may be restricted, and how it may be restricted. For example, a board allowing one type of invocation would not be on legally defensible ground by banning another, whether by a “recognized” organization (as Gavin put it) or not. And a federal appeals court as recently as July ruled the Brevard County Commission’s prayers illegal, because discriminatory.
But it was also precisely to avoid those slippery slopes that the board opted not to go in those directions, making the whole issue moot.
But not killing it entirely: McDonald invited the board members to think about how to meld all the ideas discussed today and formulate some kind of method where community groups such as the Elks, the Rotary, clergy or individuals could be heard, presumably outside the context of an invocation, at the beginning of board meetings, as a means of highlighting their works. She was describing the Spotlight segment, though board members agreed to take her suggestion under advisement.
The workshop began with one public comment–from Sheila Zinkerman, who identified herself as a member of the local chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “These invocations or prayers can send a message that the board prefers one religious dogma over another. Therefore, by default–and as a listener–you are an outsider and not a privileged participant if you are a non-believer or a theist of a different faith,” Zinkerman told the board, sitting at the board’s table.
“This observation is particularly important since School Board meetings are often attended by impressionable children. The rights and beliefs of all children must be respected by the adults in the room since children are a captive audience.” After likening most moments of silence to “veiled” forms of prayer, Zinkerman concluded, “America has the most diverse religious population in the world. Don’t make our children feel like outsiders by sanctioning a potpourri of theist, atheist, and other traditions through School Board invocations and prayer. Keep the prayer where it is most accepted and welcomed by all – in the homes and in places of worship.”