Weatherford ISD board of trustees President Mike Guest announced that the board would continue to pray to mark the beginning of school board meetings.
The announcement, which was met with cheers and applause from most in the audience, was made during the school board meeting on Monday evening.
“Let me be clear: we will continue to pray at the start of our board meetings, and we will continue to ask for God’s blessings on our school board and this community,” Guest said.
This comes after the Freedom from Religion Foundation sent the WISD board a letter at the end of February asking them to stop praying to open school board meetings.
Guest said the matter was discussed with administration, and the board’s practice is “in compliance with the law.” He said the board would not chastise or single anyone out for their beliefs.
“Our prayers are for these students, staff, teachers and this community,” Guest said. “Whether you choose to participate in the prayer is your decision. This board has not made and will not ever make negative connotations about other religions or practices. We respect everyone’s right to their faith, religions and thoughts.”
After Guest made the announcement, two people from the audience addressed the board and asked about people who follow other faiths.
“And what about inclusion of other children of other religions?” an attendee asked.
Before the meeting, a group of people gathered in front of the WISD District Services Building to hold hands and pray. The Christian prayer was led by Weatherford City Council Member Curtis Tucker, leader of the local ministerial alliance.
About 60 people attended the prayer event, organizer Matt Herron said. He said they are praising God for the school board’s decision.
Herron said the board has a right to pray, and their prayers are not exclusive to anyone.
“If they listen to the prayer that was made last night and every prayer that I’ve heard that the school board has made has not been exclusive," Herron said. “It is simply asking for God’s guidance as they make the decisions that benefit our children.”
FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover said the foundation was contacted by a district community member who said the prayer ostracizes nonreligious and religious minority members of the community.
“The fact that the school board has decided to continue the practice, despite its considerable drawbacks and minimal benefits, is disappointing,” Grover said.
Grover said the foundation will consult with the complainant on what steps can be taken moving forward.
Another organization sent WISD Superintendent Jeffrey Hanks a letter from the First Liberty Institute toward the end of March to support the board continuing to pray, citing their constitutional right.
“No less than two decisions by the Supreme Court of the United States affirm our nation’s longstanding practice of opening meetings with public prayer,” First Liberty Institute Deputy General Counsel Jeremy Dys said. “Likewise, the Fifth Circuit clearly approves of legislative prayers before school board meetings and would likely extend that to prayers offered by school board members themselves.”
The U.S. Supreme Court took up prayer in governmental bodies in Lemon vs. Kurtzman (1971), Marsh vs. Chambers (1983) and Town of Greece vs. Galloway (2014). In Lemon vs. Kurtzman, the court decided that a government practice doesn’t violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment if the practice has a secular purpose, doesn’t inhibit or advance religion and doesn’t excessively entangle religion with government.
In Marsh vs. Chambers, the court upheld state legislatures opening sessions with prayer because it is a practice rooted in the nation’s history and tradition. Along those lines, the court decided that prayer at town meetings in Greece, New York, does not violate the Establishment Clause because of the town’s long-held tradition in the case of Town of Greece vs. Galloway. The court also established that the town didn’t discriminate against minority faiths who could offer prayer and does not force coercion of other attendees.
In addition, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found a similar judgment in their ruling of American Humanist Association vs. Birdville ISD. BISD would allow students to open the school board meeting with some sort of statement, which could include prayer, as long as it wasn’t obscene or inappropriate. The court noted that this section of the meeting took place in the ceremonial part and people were free to step out, arrive late or protest. The court decided there was no coercion in asking attendees to stand.
Dys also cited Bormuth v. County of Jackson (2017), in which the Sixth Circuit that the previous Supreme Court rulings in Marsh and town of Greece also apply to lawmaker-led prayers. In addition, Dys stated that "the presence of students does not preclude legislative prayer."
Grover said FFRF draws a contrast with school board meetings from other legislative bodies because students are sometimes required or requested to attend.
WISD did not comment further on the matter.