Prayer continues at school board meetings

Date Published: 
March 2, 2012

Although Indian River School Board members are prohibited from offering public prayer, board members are now bowing their heads twice as much as before.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court deferred to the decision of U.S. Court of Appeals that public prayer led by school board members is unconstitutional, due to student involvement at board meetings.

After the original lawsuit brought by the anonymous Doe family against IRSD, District Judge Joseph Farnan ruled in the board’s favor. However, the Does were successful in appealing that decision to the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which on Aug. 5, 2011, reversed the original decision in favor of the Does.

When the Third Circuit of Appeals forbade prayer before school board meetings, IRSD appealed the decision in September 2011 and began opening meetings with a moment of silence instead.

IR board members could no longer initiate public prayer so, in September, private citizens began attending board meetings for the sole purpose of offering prayer during Public Comments. Citizens are each allowed three minutes to address the IRSD school board, and they may speak on any topic.

The issue of prayer has been balancing between two opposing sides of the First Amendment, which says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech…”

“Anyone can come before this board and say anything,” said Board Member Robert Wilson. “We might not agree with it. We might not like it. But that’s why it’s public comment.”

Citizen Eric Bodenweiser has appeared at most, if not all, of the school board meetings since September 2011.

“Specifically, the only reason we’re here is a blessing,” Bodenweiser said. “The board members couldn’t have a prayer on their own, and we felt it needed to be done and, as citizens, we wanted to stand up for our right to pray and do it ourselves.”

He often prays in gratitude and asks guidance for IRSD employees and board members.

Bodenweiser suggested community prayers may be more blessed because “you could say a prayer for yourself … but to have somebody actually come in, get out of their living room chair and come down here and say a prayer” is more thoughtful, he said.

Typically, Bodenweiser and another person will offer prayer.

Bo Shockley, a senior at Sussex Central High School, read the first prayer during Public Comments at the Feb. 28, 2012, meeting. In Jesus’ name, he said thanks to God for the day, for friends, family and a safe place to learn, and he asked for blessings and guidance for those who teach and learn.

Shockley was surprised to hear he was the first student among the private citizens to pray before the board. He decided to attend after learning about these public prayers from the news.

The Rev. Tim Wilson also made his board meeting debut Feb. 28. He likewise prayed in Jesus’ name, for guidance and blessings for the school board members. He also offered gratitude for God’s love and mercy, asking comfort and strength for families in Ohio, referencing the shooting spree at Chardon High School on Monday, Feb. 27.

“I think it’s beneficial. I think it’s important. I’m just honored to be part of that,” said Wilson, who heard about the public prayers from Bodenweiser. Tim Wilson does not have children in the district but preaches in Georgetown and at Milton Wesleyan Church.

When the Supreme Court refused to hear IR’s appeal in January, thus upholding the Third Circuit’s decision, the board questioned what it was permitted to do. As a result, there has been no moment of silence at January or February meetings. However, the public prayers have continued.

Charles Bireley, board president, told the Coastal Point in January that he was personally “very, very disappointed” in the outcome of the court case, although he said he understood the situation. “In the present time, we’re talking with our attorney … He’s going to review the decision from the Third Circuit and see what our options are, if there are any options.”

“The very first person that came up with the idea was one of the board members … Robert Wilson. He says, ‘You know, we got our public comments section before and after, why don’t we just do it that way?’” Bodenweiser said.

“I wanted to keep it going,” Wilson said. “We wanted to find a way we could offer up a prayer without getting in trouble with the lawsuit. And public comment is a perfect opportunity to do that.”

Whether a person is Christian, Jewish or a Satanist, Wilson said, “There’s the podium, right there. You know, it’s a free country. I’m not discriminating against anybody. … More good than bad can come from a prayer.”

Wilson said he would probably be at the public podium if he was not a board member, but until then, he is happy that Bodenweiser attends meetings.

“There’s nothing, far as I know, that they can do to him. When they first said we can’t say a prayer, the wheels in my head started turning,” Wilson said. “What we’re doing is 100 percent legal. … There’s no one saying I can’t ask a pastor to come in. I’ve asked my own pastor to come in.”

“I think it’s our constitutional right to do it,” Robert Wilson said. “It’s a shame we have to find a way around. As soon as something bad happens in a school, I guarantee the first thing they’re going to do is say, ‘Pray for the people in this school. Pray for the parents.’ Everybody always wants to pray for somebody.”

Christian roots run deep in the Wilson family. His father, Sam Wilson, is a member of the Sussex County Council, where he often offers prayers before meetings – a practice that is itself now the basis of a lawsuit arguing that the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer before council meetings is unconstitutional. They still pray before each meeting.

“Me and my dad, we had some good people thinking of” ways to pray within the court’s order, Robert Wilson explained.

“I sort of came up with the idea, just talking about it one day,” said Sam Wilson. “Naturally, it’s open to anyone.”

He noted that people never seemed to pray during public comments until the school board was unable to.

“I guess what we’re doing about speaks for itself,” Sam Wilson continued. “The [court] ordered the school board not to pray, and I said, ‘It’d be tough not to order the whole public not to pray. [the school board doesn’t] ask for prayer, naturally, but they ask for public comment.’”

When praying before the school board, citizens typically ask guidance for the school board or blessings for the district.

Bodenweiser said the message is “for the Lord to look after the school district, to honor and glorify our Lord, Jesus Christ. That’s the only reason we’re on the earth anyway. Hopefully, somebody will see us and say, ‘What is it about those people? I better look into that Christianity thing.’”

“I know the board appreciates it, and we’re thrilled to be able to do it,” said Bodenweiser. “We hope that we can continue it into perpetuity.”