ORRVILLE – An organization known to promote the separation of church and state blames schools in the city for praying to school council meetings.
the Freedom of Religion Foundation notified on BBoard of Education via a December 22 email that said the opening of monthly public meetings with Christian prayer “goes beyond a public school board,” according to Supreme Court rulings and precedents.
The school district is reviewing the matter with its legal counsel, Superintendent Jon Ritchie said, and may discuss the matter at a future board meeting.
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The Freedom From Religion Foundation advocates its cause
Karen Heineman, lawyer for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said the organization was contacted in October by a parent who lives in the school district and who attended a recent school board meeting which opened with a prayer .
The letter to the board read, “The prayer our complainant witnessed was Christian and ended with ‘our Savior Jesus Christ’,” and noted that the prayer came before the pledge of allegiance. , the first item listed on many school boards agendas.
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“Board member Wayne Steiner promotes his personal religious beliefs at board meetings and has been hostile to the expression of other religious views,” according to the foundation’s letter.
Heineman said it could have swayed the board vote on mask requirements.
“There had been initial discussions, (the board) seemed to be leaning towards the mask’s mandate. The only board member made his point that basically God decides how long we’re going to be here with or without a mask. And then the vote went the other way.
School district Strategies declare that the board of directors is prohibited from discriminating against anyone on the basis of several personal aspects, including their religion. Heineman said praying at public meetings and allowing board members to share their personal views overrides those policies.
“Even district policies… say council members have a responsibility to be representative in order to be responsive, and that council does not discriminate on the basis of religion,” said Heineman. “I think when you have a Christian prayer opening every board meeting, and when you have someone voicing their personal religious beliefs, they don’t even follow their own policies.”
An email and phone call to Steiner via the council office was not returned.
Response from the Orrville school district
Board chair Greg Roadruck confirmed that the board says a prayer before each meeting, describing the intention of the prayer as a time to come together rather than a push for a set of beliefs.
“Our intention is not to impose anything on anyone or anything like that,” Roadruck said. “The intention of a prayer, in my opinion only, is to clear our minds and make sure that we are not just thinking (of) ourselves but of the whole community.”
Roadruck said prayer is said before the meeting is called to order so it does not become part of the meeting.
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Although the board has not met since the letter was sent, Roadruck said, the question of the prayer will be reviewed to ensure the board is following the rules.
“We take an oath, I will do it again here shortly, to uphold the Constitution and all laws of the state of Ohio,” Roadruck said. “So we’ve got to stick with that, so that’s what we’ll do.”
What happens next?
Heineman said the foundation was awaiting the official board response to the letter.
As of December 27, Superintendent Jon Ritchie said all board members have received a copy of the letter and are independently reviewing it. Ritchie also said the district legal counsel is reviewing the letter and the issue may be addressed at a future board meeting.
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Any change in the way the school board conducts its meetings has yet to be determined, however, Roadruck said he didn’t want the issue to become a long-term issue.
“Personally, I (maybe) have different thoughts, maybe,” Roadruck said. “But legally, we’re bound by state laws and I’m not going to waste taxpayer dollars fighting Ohio laws or the Constitution.”
Contact Rachel Karas at [email protected]
On Twitter: @ RachelKaras3