Acting on legal advice, the Greencastle-Antrim School Board has halted its tradition of opening meetings with the Lord’s Prayer and replaced it with a moment of silence.
At Thursday night’s meeting, however, audience members recited the Lord’s Prayer in unison during the moment of silence.
Board President Eric Holtzman said the Lord’s Prayer has been a mainstay of the board agenda for several decades.
“I’m sad to see a tradition that was intended to help the board and the community end because of a court ruling,” Holtzman said.
The board’s break from tradition was in response to several visits 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.
They referred to an August 2011 ruling by the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals that bans public prayer before school board meetings.
Holtzman said the board researched the issue with organizations including the Indian River School District in Delaware, which lost the prayer case in the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals last year, and the Alliance Defending Freedom, an organization that describes itself on its website as a servant ministry with activities including advocating for religious liberty.
The board took no formal vote on the prayer issue at its Thursday meeting.
The district still is waiting to hear back from the American Center for Law and Justice before it makes its formal decision, Holtzman said. That organization’s website describes it as, among other things, “dedicated to the ideal that religious freedom and freedom of speech are inalienable.”
Even if the school district took its battle to court, other districts that have done so have spent more than $500,000 and had to pay legal fees, Holtzman said.
“As unfair as that may seem, that is the situation we are presented with,” Holtzman said.
The goal is to have a final decision for the community by the next board meeting, he said.
The board plans to publicize it in a letter or news release.
“We don’t like the decision (not to say the Lord’s Prayer), but it’s the law,” Holtzman said.
During public comment, Tom Shook of Greencastle asked the board if prayer could be grandfathered into the agenda.
He also asked board members to look into having prayer put to a referendum to let voters decide.
Greencastle resident Jeff Todd said after researching the issue and talking to several attorneys that he understands the board’s decision.
“Unfortunately, you guys are right. You have no choice in the matter. Unless someone smarter than me can figure this out,” Todd said, “As it stands right now, you guys got to do what the law says. Our scriptures even tell us we got to honor what the law says.
“They are not telling us that we cannot pray. What they are telling us is you, as a board, cannot sanction the prayer — but they can’t stop us from praying.”