Tennessee school board votes to pray before meetings start

Wednesday, April 21, 1999

Annoyed by a recent federal court ruling that opening public school board meetings with prayer is unconstitutional, a Tennessee county school board voted to move its prayers to five minutes before meetings officially begin.

The school board for Williamson County, a wealthy and homogenous area just outside Nashville, voted April 19 to change its prayer procedure. The decision was prompted by a ruling last month by a panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The 6th Circuit's jurisdiction comprises Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

The 6th Circuit ruled that the Cleveland Board of Education had been subverting the establishment clause of the First Amendment by permitting Christian prayer as part of its meetings. In Coles v. Cleveland, the 6th Circuit concluded that school boards are an important part of the public school system and that they must abide by the First Amendment “principles requiring a wall of separation between religion and the public schools.” Attorneys for the Cleveland school board have asked the entire 6th Circuit to rehear the case.

Several school boards in Tennessee pray before their meetings, according to the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union. The Williamson County School Board announced last week that despite the ruling it would continue to seek divine guidance.

At its April 19 evening meeting, which did not conclude until 1:30 a.m. yesterday, the board voted on several resolutions regarding prayers. The board began voting after Rob Wheeler, its attorney, told the members for at least the second time that the practice could spur a federal lawsuit. The board considered adopting a “moment of silence” and a motion showing defiance of the 6th Circuit ruling. After a raucous discussion in which Mike Cherry, a school board member, derided the federal judges as political hacks and called other board members “wimps” for worrying about the federal ruling, the board voted 11-1 to pray five minutes before meetings begin.

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the Tennessee ACLU, said that the Williamson County School Board may avoid a legal challenge if they cease praying collectively as a government body in their meetings.

“The members cannot meet as a body and include the prayer on its agenda,” Weinberg said. “What I really think is sad about this situation is that the Williamson County School Board is not recognizing the importance of the establishment clause as a mechanism to ensure that everyone can practice their religious beliefs without government endorsement.”

Weinberg also says that school board members such as Cherry apparently do not understand the judiciary and the need for court rulings. “For a local school board member to spout defiance and encourage others to defy a court ruling is really unacceptable,” she said.

Wheeler, however, said he believed that if board members pray before their meetings there should be no constitutional problems.

“I advised them not to open their meetings with prayer,” Wheeler said. “But as an alternative, I think they can do whatever they want before the meeting begins; they can pray and talk about ballgames, all before the meeting starts.”

Wheeler also said he believed that board members would meet in a different room to pray.