BRUNSWICK COUNTY –– For the first time in years, the Brunswick County Board of Education didn’t pray –– out loud to an audience, at least — at the onset of its regular May meeting.
The board quietly altered its invocation practice in favor of a neutral and arguably more constitutionally favorable “moment of silence.”
Board members have opened their meetings for at least six years (likely more –– that’s when the district started streaming its meetings) by asking the audience to stand while a designated member leads a Christian prayer, often invoking Jesus’ name.
At the May, June, and July meetings, the board asked the audience to instead stand for a moment of silence. In the new arrangement, board members briskly huddle behind the chairman while one prays over the group –– not loud enough so that it’s amplified to the audience.
After catching on to the new dance, audience members recited the Lord’s Prayer aloud during the moment of silence at the board’s June and July meetings. It’s a dual protest of sorts: A majority of the board is still praying, but privately, while the audience objects to the new moment of silence, filling the void with the ancient Christian anthem.
The procedure shift happened without a word spoken in open session.
In August 2020, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FRFF) sent the district a letter, informing them the practice of praying at meetings violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which bars the government from establishing a particular religion.
Asking audience members to stand is coercive, intimidating, and embarrassing, the group wrote, essentially outing a growing population of religious minorities and nonreligious audience members.
For eight months, including a December change-of-guard, the board carried on praying at meetings, inviting the public to stand and join them. In November 2020 and January 2021, FRFF sent follow-up letters.
On April 27, the board finally responded to FRFF in a laconic letter from its attorney: “Please be advised that the Brunswick County Board of Education has decided to open its meetings with a one-minute period of silence.”
FRFF filed it away as a “victory” (the group gets about 250 out-of-court “wins” every year). The group’s co-founder, Annie Laurie Gaylor, said it’s reviewing the board’s latest charade, which doesn’t follow the spirit of what the foundation was aiming for.
“The fact that they dropped the actual allowed prayer –– that’s great. It’s a real step in the right direction,” Gaylor said. “But it’s kind of thumbing your noses in a sense: ‘OK, we can’t do the loud prayer so we’re going to be as ostentatious about our irritation over this as possible.”
While the U.S. Supreme Court cleared a path in 2014 in Town of Greece v. Galloway for local governments that have historically led meetings in prayer to continue doing so, it hasn’t ruled on school board prayer. Multiple appeals courts have though, with the prevailing precedent clearly finding board-led prayer in this setting inappropriate and unconstitutional.
“There’s a little bit of discrepancy at the appeals level,” Gaylor said. “But most of the appeals courts have ruled against it when it’s come before them.”
Despite the Galloway ruling, FRFF is still fighting against coercive prayer at the local government level. In West Virginia, the group is suing the City of Parkersburg, West Virginia, for leading every meeting in the Lord’s Prayer. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the group’s favor in 2018 by shutting down school-board-led prayer in Chino Valley, California.
The school board prayer precedent is solid, Gaylor said, but the “changing judicial landscape” with a more conservative, religious-friendly Supreme Court adds hints of uncertainty.
In similar cases involving school-led prayer (but not specifically a school board), the Supreme Court has ruled settings that involve students (football games or inside the classroom) represent an unconstitutional attempt to indoctrinate young and vulnerable minds.
“When the power, prestige and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain,” the court ruled in the landmark 1963 case, Engel v. Vitale.
Appeals courts have found school boards to be no different –– distinct from other legislative bodies –– as the elected officials serve students and oversee the only forum they can appeal to when they have exhausted all other options.
Pushing a theocratic agenda in a board meeting can taint the venue for those who may wish to speak up about religious issues inside the classroom. “It signals that you’re supposed to be Christian and you’re supposed to conform and we’re going to force a prayer on you whether you want it or not,” Gaylor said.
In a sweeping study released last year, The Public Religion Research Institute found the share of nonreligious individuals is on the rise, particularly among young adults ages 18 to 29. Within this cohort, 36% are estimated to have no religious affiliation, up from 23% in 2006 and from 10% in 1986. The Pew Research Center garnered similar findings the year prior, noting downward trends in Christianity while the unaffiliated sector gains more ground.
“The idea that they have to have a group prayer, in public, in front of people, is the problem. It shows that they want to inflict it on others, in other words, they want to inflict their particular religion on other people and incorporate it as part of our government,” Gaylor said. “And our government is secular and it doesn’t matter what religion you are.”
A closed session decision
No public words were spoken about the shift in procedure until after it took place (then, commentary only came in the form of a few disgruntled public speakers).
Brunswick County Schools (BCS) spokesperson Daniel Seamans said he can’t recall and is unaware of any discussions on the topic between board members. “The transition to that I think just happened,” he said. “There is nothing in public that I’m aware of –– and I’m at all those meetings. I walk out of there when they walk out.”
Amanda Martin, an attorney who advises media outlets on open government matters, said public bodies can’t legally make decisions in closed session or outside of meetings.
“Any discussion about an invocation or moment of silence should have taken place in an open decision, because there is no exemption that would permit that in closed session,” she wrote in an email Wednesday.
Presented with Martin’s assertion, Seamans checked with the board attorney and said the district had no further comment.
Importance of prayer
Asked about the switch, vice-chair Steven Barger said, “We’re still praying.” He said he could not comment about closed session discussions.
Board member Gerald Benton, who said he’s staunchly against removing prayer in board meetings, said the board’s solution is better than cutting it out altogether. “I completely believe that we should be allowed to pray,” he said. “However, the lawyers are telling us that that is not the case.”
After leading the prayer aloud for months, board member Robin Moffitt has continued to lead a majority of the board in its private prayer during the moment of silence. “My faith and praying for our board to make the best decisions for our school system is important to me,” she wrote in an email.
At each of the three meetings since the change-up, chairman Ed Lemon has bowed his head and stood quietly while facing the audience as the other board members pray behind him.
“The reason I do not join them is that, as chairman, I must remain in position to run the meeting,” Lemon explained in an email. “After all, we seek to make the best decisions possible for the boys and girls of Brunswick County Schools.”
Board member David Robinson, who could not be reached for comment, wrote in a lengthy Facebook post in late May the board’s practice left the district vulnerable to a legal suit it would likely lose that could cost millions to defend. He wrote the post to respond to a public commenter who had called board members “cowards” for dropping prayer from the meetings.
“As you can imagine, this whole matter angered me and other board members,” he wrote. “I felt it infringed on my rights as a Christian, but conversely, I suppose it was infringing on someone else’s rights too.”
A majority of the board “OFFICIALLY” agreed to the moment of silence, Robinson disclosed in the post; he was not in favor of the decision and instead preferred a prayer around the flagpole ahead of the meeting.
A sore spot for the school board was why Brunswick County commissioners are allowed to pray, but they can’t.
At the inception of every county meeting, a commissioner leads the room in Christian prayer. Commissioner Pat Sykes, who joined in with other audience members in reciting the Lord’s Prayer at the school board meeting last month, said she thinks the school board “should be clear on their policy.”
“I personally prefer a prayer over a moment of silence to focus the board’s attention on the serious task of making decisions in the best interest of the people they represent,” she wrote in an email. “The practice of opening meeting[s] with prayer has continued without interruption ever since the beginning of early meetings.”
Sykes pointed to the “In God We Trust” motto enshrined on county buildings and vehicles, and the Charters of Freedom display, installed in front of the courthouse in April containing the Declaration of Independence, United States Constitution, and Bill of Rights. “This is an important reminder of our Founders’ faith,” she wrote. “[T]hese documents show that our Founding Fathers knew the power and purpose of prayer. From our nation’s beginning through times of war and tragedy, we have been called to pray.”
When disasters affect county leaders (as they often do, with a deadly tornado and devastating hurricanes in just a few years), “we all ask for prayer or we say we are praying for the ones involved,” Sykes pointed out.
“That is why we need prayer before public meetings to guide our decisions, so we make the best decisions for our community,” she said.
Gaylor said the nation’s founders intentionally separated church and state, and ignoring the constitution sets a bad example for students. “They were elected to oversee a public school district whose purpose is to educate, not to indoctrinate. And when they get up there and pray or make this kind of show they are making a bad lesson, they’re miseducating students about the meaning of the First Amendment and freedom of conscience. It’s doing a huge disservice to their students and parents,” she said. “The public parade of it is a problem.”
At the school board and local government level, Gaylor said elected officials should refrain from praying in meetings. “It’s very bad manners,” she said. “It’s also bad law.”
View FRFF’s initial August 2020 complaint:
View the school board’s April 27 response:
Send tips and comments to Johanna F. Still at email@example.com