The Hoover school board abandoned prayer at meetings in 2009, except for one meeting in May 2010.
Former Hoover school board President A.W. Bolt leads the board in a “moment of silence” at the beginning of the board’s meeting on June 13, 2010.
HOOVER, Alabama – After four years of absence, prayer returns to Hoover school board meetings tonight, albeit silent prayer.
The U.S. Supreme Court a week ago ruled that a New York town’s practice of opening meetings with predominantly Christian prayers does not violate the U.S. Constitution, prompting Hoover school board President Paulette Pearson to put silent prayer on the agenda for tonight’s meeting.
Former Hoover school board member Suzy Baker, when she was president of the board in early 2009, stopped the practice of prayer before board meetings and switched instead to a moment of silence. School board attorney Donald Sweeney recommended the change, citing case law and a desire to be sensitive to Hoover’s diverse population.
School board member Donna Frazier brought prayer back in her last meeting as president in May 2010, but a group called Americans United for Separation of Church of State filed a complaint. The next board president, A.W. Bolt, switched back to a moment of silence, and the board eventually abandoned the moment of silence as well.
Hoover school board member Paulette Pearson (Mark Almondfirstname.lastname@example.org)
Pearson said last week’s ruling allows the current board to bring prayer back.
“Donna has been pushing for that for years and trying very hard to get that to happen,” Pearson said. “We all wanted it back. Every one of us have wanted it back.”
Pearson said she consulted with Sweeney before getting silent prayer added to tonight’s agenda.
“People in this community want prayer,” Pearson said. “It doesn’t say a ‘moment of silence.’ It’s to pray. We will bow our heads, and we will pray … If anybody needs prayer, it’s us.”
However, Pearson said she decided to keep the prayer silent for now.
“We do have several members who are concerned about there being different religions within our group,” Pearson said. “We do have such a diverse group in Hoover. We decided that it would be good to give people an opportunity to pray as they want to pray. Not all people are Christians, which is hard for some of us to grasp. We sometimes forget that.”
And if anyone doesn’t want to pray, “you don’t have to,” Pearson said.
The silent nature of the prayer could change in the future, but “for right now, that’s what we decided would be the prudent thing to do,” she said.
Hoover school board member Donna Frazier
The Hoover school board tonight is expected to elect new officers for the coming year, and Pearson said Frazier, the current vice president, likely will be nominated to become president again. This will be the last year of Frazier’s second five-year term, and the school board typically elects people to serve as president in their final year.
Derrick Murphy likely will be nominated to be vice president because he has two years left, Pearson said.
Frazier said today she is very pleased to see prayer back on the agenda and said the board does have some options to consider for the future.
In some years past, board members have taken turns leading in spoken prayer, and at times, ministers from various churches have led in prayer to start the meeting, she said.
The Hoover City Council consistently has prayer before its meetings, frequently led by the city clerk.
Bluff Park resident and parent Robin Schultz was among those eager to see prayer brought back to school board meetings. Immediately after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling a week ago, Schultz sent an email to Hoover school board members, asking that they reinstitute what had been a longstanding tradition in Hoover City Schools prior to 2009.
The U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
In the New York case considered by the U.S. Supreme Court, two women in the town of Greece, N.Y., complained that prayers in the town council meetings were overtly Christian, and they sought to limit the town of Greece to “inclusive and ecumenical” prayers that referred only to a “generic God.”
In the majority opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with a district court ruling that prayers do not have to be nonsectarian. The Christian identity of most of the prayer givers reflected the predominantly Christian character of the town’s congregations and was not an official policy or practice of discriminating against minority faiths, the court ruled.
“Legislative prayer, while religious in nature, has long been understood as compatible with the Establishment Clause,” the Supreme Court wrote. “To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures sponsoring prayers and the courts deciding these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech, thus involving government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town’s current practice of neither editing nor approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact.”
Furthermore, “it is doubtful that consensus could be reached as to what qualifies as a generic or nonsectarian prayer,” the court wrote. “It would also be unwise to conclude that only those religious words acceptable to the majority are permissible, for the First Amendment is not a majority rule and government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech.”
The Supreme Court found that prayers at the Greece town council were not antagonistic toward other faiths.
“They may have invoked, e.g., the name of Jesus, but they also invoked universal themes, e.g., by calling for a ‘spirit of cooperation,’” the court wrote. “Absent a pattern of prayers that over time denigrate, proselytize, or betray an impermissible government purpose, a challenge based solely on the content of a particular prayer will not likely establish a constitutional violation.”
The town of Greece’s prayers also, while perhaps offensive to some, were not coercive in nature and “bear no resemblance to the coercive state establishments that existed at the founding, which exercised government power in order to exact financial support of the church, compel religious observance, or control religious doctrine,” the court said.
See the complete U.S. Supreme Court ruling here.
The Hoover school board is scheduled to meet at 4 p.m. today for an informal work session that will include a mid-year financial review and at 5:30 p.m. for an action meeting. Here is the agenda for the action meeting.
See more news from Hoover at www.al.com/hoover