For the first time in recent memory, the Greencastle-Antrim School Board did not recite the Lord’s Prayer at its meeting Thursday, instead choosing a moment of silence.
Without missing a beat, the overflow crowd that filled the Greencastle-Antrim Middle School library broke the silence by reciting the Lord’s Prayer in unison.
As a chorus of voices began to blend into the well-known prayer, several of the board members became visibly upset as they refrained from participating.
Some board members wiped tears from their eyes, while others mouthed the words to the prayer without speaking it aloud.
The school board’s break from tradition was in response to a second visit from members of Pennsylvania atheist groups who told the school board to stop praying at its meetings or face legal action.
Carl Silverman, of Pennsylvania Non-Believers of York (Pa.), and Ernest Perce V, Pennsylvania state director for American Atheists, said the board was breaking the law by making prayer part of its meetings.
Perce referred to an August 2011 ruling by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals that bans public prayer before school board meetings.
This meeting was the second visit by the men to the district to challenge prayer. The first was Aug. 16.
The men also attended an Antrim Township Supervisors meeting Aug. 28.
Thursday’s meeting began with members of the community speaking in support of prayer.
Howard Ritchey served on the school board for 16 years. Saying the Lord’s Prayer is a tradition that goes back to the very beginning of the school district, he said.
“I encourage you to stand up for something that you are teaching our children to do — that is to stand up to bullies,” Ritchey said to loud cheers and applause. “Show our students what leadership you are capable of doing — stand up to these bullies. Call their bluff.”
Ritchey exercised his right to pray as a citizen.
“Father, we ask you to bless this board, to strengthen them, to guide them, to give them the courage to face all matters,” he said.
Then Ritchey recited the Lord’s Prayer and was joined by members of the audience.
“That’s how it should be done. Thank you,” Perce said, referring to the public’s recitation of the prayer and not the school board’s.
Perce said his group will continue to monitor school board meetings, and if the board does not stop reciting the Lord’s Prayer, legal action will be taken.
“What we’re doing is throwing out the whole First Amendment to satisfy a special interest group,” Gerald Lute of Greencastle said. “God help us and forgive the atheists for they know not what they do in their ignorance.”
After a short executive session, district Superintendent C. Gregory Hoover spoke for the school board.
“The board has decided to move on and fight the (public prayer) case,” Hoover said to cheers and applause from the crowd.
He said the district will start investigations with other organizations and determine what path to take. An update will be presented at the next school board meeting, he said.
Then Hoover took a short pause.
“On advice of counsel, there is the possibility if we did tonight go against the 3rd Circuit Court that we could jeopardize any chance of moving forward. We will have a moment of silence instead of the Lord’s Prayer tonight, and we will continue to do that until we ...” Hoover said.
The audience reacted with shouts of “No!”
Hoover controlled the audience’s reaction to the board’s decision by reminding them that the board was still in session, and that comments were not being taken from the audience.
“Rise and take a moment to reflect in your own way,” said Eric Holtzman, board president.
“Our Father who art in Heaven...” began several members of the audience, and others joined them in prayer.
Then, a voice from the crowd said, “Father, forgive the atheists for they know not what they do.”
“Amen,” said another voice from the crowd.
Jeff Todd of Greencastle said after the meeting he thought the school board could have stood stronger against the atheist groups.
“They weren’t bold enough. For a community as big as this community is, they took a cowardly stance,” Todd said. “I appreciate that they want to fight, but they should have taken the stance tonight and led a prayer and showed the bully that we are not going to fool with them.”
Brian Holmes felt so strongly about the board’s right to pray that he pledged $5,000 of his own money to fight any legal battles.
“We can’t let someone who is offended by this change this long-standing practice,” Holmes said.