School board prayer practices come under fire

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A coordinated prayer effort seeks to reform the Coweta County School Board.

Paul Schneider Jr., who said he “represents churches in Coweta County,” urged council members to reconsider opening meetings with a moment of silence instead of spoken prayer.

“Starting the meetings with prayer … would be a very good practice because we need God in our country,” said Schneider, who spoke about prayer and faith at the Feb. 8 council meeting.

He also claimed that the school board is not following the law regarding school prayer, especially in school sports, saying the rights granted by the government have been “taken away from us”.

“It kind of closes things off when we have student-led prayers, and then…our coaches and you know, other staff aren’t allowed to participate in those prayers,” Schneider said.

Schneider — who ran for the board as leader of the pro-prayer group Pray Coweta and regional ambassador for his state-level organization, Pray Georgia — drafted an email sent to a group called Coweta Prayer Watch on February 4.

The email was sent to the Newnan Times-Herald by a recipient. In it, Schneider encouraged “prayer warriors” to pray the Lord’s Prayer during the board’s moment of silence “to make a strong statement to the school board that we, the people of Coweta County, want prayer come back to our schools.

According to Superintendent Evan Horton, the minute of silence is meant to be a time of silent prayer and inclusive reflection, regardless of faith.

“It has been a longstanding practice of the council to have a moment of silence during which participants and the council could pray silently according to their individual beliefs, as they wished,” Horton told The Times-Herald in an e-mail. February 9 email.

Several people present at the meeting recited the Lord’s Prayer aloud during what was supposed to be the moment of silence, while some quoted Bible verses and others began to chant “Kumbaya, my Lord”.

In his group email, Schneider also pointed to a 2017 incident involving a high school football coach, mislabeling him as a catalyst for anti-prayer action by local school officials.

“Some time ago, our Coweta County School System Superintendent removed prayer from our Coweta County schools because a coach bowed his head during student-led prayer,” Schneider wrote.

This accusation was repeated in person at the board meeting, where Maxwell Britton bluntly accused then-Superintendent Steve Barker of being “successfully coerced” into removing the prayer from sports programming.

“Essentially, Barker compromised the principles of our county to the bullies who wrote a threatening letter,” Britton said.

But Barker did no such thing.

“That statement was false,” Horton said.

In October 2017, the school system was contacted by the Freedom From Religion Foundation — a Wisconsin-based group that advocates for separation of church and state — after the foundation received an anonymous video of the coach “silently participating in student-led activities.” prayer on the football field.

The foundation has threatened legal action against school system employees if the matter is not resolved. Barker had the council attorney prepare a summary of the federal law regarding prayer in schools, which Barker then distributed to all employees of the Coweta County school system to ensure they understood what the law meant. authorizes and what it prohibits.

No further action has been taken by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Prayer in schools is permitted for students and employees under federal law. However, the law prohibits school officials acting in their official capacity – as in the case of the football coach – from participating in prayer or any other student-initiated or student-led worship.

No superintendent or other official of the Coweta school would have the power to override the law.

“It’s not a local position,” Horton said. “This is the decision of the federal courts and applies to all American public schools. Our school system is obligated to follow existing state and federal laws and to inform our employees of the law as it relates to their duties.

Horton said anyone — including himself — can oppose the actions of groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and even disagree with the law. But “our school system is obligated to follow existing state and federal laws and inform our employees of the law as it relates to their duties.”

And deliberately misleading people about who or what governs prayer in schools, or whether prayer is allowed in schools, is a divisive practice, Horton said.

“Students can and do pray in our schools and explore their faith in our schools in many ways,” Horton said. “Employees can and do pray in schools too, as I can personally testify. But characterizing the well-known federal law as the action of a superintendent misinforms the public and only serves to divide our community against itself.

Schneider’s email suggests that might have been his group’s goal, with four members of the Coweta County School Board up for re-election this year.

“Let us elect a Christian school board that will uphold divine principles,” he wrote. “We’ve selected our desired slate for this, and with your support, we can make it happen.”

Linda Menk, a representative for beleaguered District 4, is one of the board members whose seat is up for grabs, and she appears to have helped boost Schneider’s “prayer warriors.”

In an email from Menk to Schneider that he attached to the email from the “Coweta Prayer Watch” group, Menk indicated that she was aware of the planned discontinuation of the minute of silence before the meeting and that she encouraged others to participate.

“There are a growing number of conservative Christian citizens who will be present…and vocally say the Lord’s Prayer during the moment of silence,” she wrote. “I encourage all Christian citizens and pastors to join us in this effort…to put God rightfully back into our schools. It starts with us, and God will hear our prayers and bless our actions.

During board comments, Menk referenced the 2017 incident “when we had one of our high school coaches who was pretty much called to the mat by an atheist organization.” She suggested to Horton that the board seek free advice and guidance from two organizations – both public policy partners of Focus on the Family – “to see if there might be any proposed changes that could be discussed. regarding council members praying aloud before meetings.

Menk made the same suggestion to Barker and her fellow board members during a meeting in November 2017 when discussing the football coach, but she received no response.

This time around, Menk’s suggestion centered not on prayer in school sports, but on whether the board could start its meetings with spoken prayer. This time, Horton responded.

“I will be consulting with our board attorney to explore options in this regard, to ensure that the board is in compliance with federal law in this regard,” Horton said.

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