The Culpeper County School Board on Monday put to rest the issue of public prayer before its meetings and expressed support of its current moment of silence, preferring, as several members said, education over litigation.

Nate Clancy (Catalpa District) made the motion to include a prayer or invocation prior to the board’s regular meetings, seconded by Marshall Keene, representing Stevensburg. Clancy and Keene supported the proposal, which fell 5-2.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing,” Clancy said, likening the board to other legislative bodies that open with prayer. “Seeking wisdom is good. We’re not educators, we’re not in the classroom every day.”

Betsy Smith, representing the Cedar Mountain District, said she’d deeply struggled with the decision.

“Prayer is the foundation of my life,” Smith, a children’s minister at her church, said. “I don’t think I could survive without it.”

But when the time to vote came, Smith adopted a cautious approach.

“I don’t think it would be a good use of our allotted dollars to end up in litigation,” she said.

Michelle North (Jefferson District), Pat Baker (East Fairfax District) and Rachel Carter (West Fairfax District), also spoke in favor of the status quo. Chairman Anne Luckinbill (Salem District) did not comment, but voted with the majority.

Baker also noted that she’d been disappointed by “un-Christian-like behavior” from those lobbying for prayer that amounted to what she called “bullying tactics.”

Carter and North echoed their previous sentiments that the moment of silence should be sufficient for anyone wishing to pray and their desires to keep the school board immune from litigation.

About 15 people – 13 in favor of instituting prayer – turned out to share their thoughts during the public delegations.

Chris Snider, who served on the Culpeper Town Council from 2004 to 2010 but no longer lives in Culpeper, told the board that prayers prior to council meetings “always set the tone for the evening and made me mindful.” He noted that inviting pastors from diverse backgrounds to provide invocations was educational.

“Our children are the foundation of our future society and we owe it to them to strengthen them in mind, body and spirit,” said Snider, who then introduced and read letters to the board from U.S. Congressman Dave Brat, R-7th, and state senator Bryce Reeves, 17th District.

Brat and Reeves penned letters to the board supporting the proposal brought forth in December by Keene.

“It is a time-honored tradition for the United States Congress to begin each legislative day with an invocation,” Brat wrote, noting that Culpeper pastor Brad Hales of Reformation Lutheran Church delivered an invocation on the House floor several years ago.

“Seeking daily guidance from God is supported strongly by both political parties in Congress and also allows us to share local leaders in the faith community with the entire nation,” wrote the congressman.

Reeves wrote that state senators “find our morning prayer to be a time of reflection and unity between members.” He suggested the board establish guidelines by which “individuals from all over the county could be invited to attend a meeting and offer an invocation.”

“This has the added bonus of being a learning opportunity which I know as a school board is something that is important to all of you,” Reeves added.

Sherry Crissman read from a letter written by 30th District Delegate Nick Freitas, also in support of prayer before meetings by legislative bodies before offering her own words of agreement.

Kim West, resident of the Stevensburg District, told the board she believes the silent moment is acceptable.

“You all are role models for our children. If an invocation is not allowed at school, then I don’t believe it should be allowed here,” West said. “I’m a true believer in prayer, and I pray for you all the time because you have a big job to do. But spiritual bullying is just as big as regular bullying and pushing religion on people, different religions can be offensive.”

Cedar Mountain District resident Michael McKenna drew a distinction between school boards and other legislative bodies that levy taxes, make laws and even declare war. The “multi-thousand dollar memo from the attorney,” he said, “clearly says the matter’s not settled, legally.”

“You make school policy, you make no binding laws. There’s no reason why you can’t do it, but there’s a pretty good reason why you shouldn’t do it,” McKenna said, warning that the board would open itself to lawsuits.

McKenna questioned how praying aloud is any different than praying silently and urged the board instead to focus on the budget process for about 8,000 students.

Melanie Chambers, a resident of the Salem District, told the board “praying here in this board meeting would promote a sense of community, cohesiveness and cohesion.”

Chambers said she supports “asking for wisdom and guidance before discussion and debate on issues critical to our children, schools and community. Anyone wishing to avoid prayer may merely slip into a meeting five minutes late.”

On Feb. 26, the school board publicly released a 12-page memo prepared by its attorney, Rodney Young of Timberlake Smith in Staunton, to explore legal issues related opening meeting with prayer.

Young’s legal advice sought to answer whether a school board can open its meetings with sectarian prayer without violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution, referring to language stating “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Citing several relevant court cases which allow legislative bodies leeway to invite and include sectarian prayer, Young concluded that the Culpeper school board would find itself in uncharted waters.

The attorney warned that “the law on this issue is unsettled in Virginia. And, whether the Fourth Circuit or the Supreme Court would treat school boards like other governmental bodies (towns, cities and counties) is equally unsettled.”

“School boards have a unique role and a much closer direct involvement with students, who courts have often described as more susceptible to the coercive powers and influences of the government – in this case, as represented in the form of the school board,” Young concluded.

According to school superintendent Tony Brads, Young’s initial research cost the division about $8,000 and could reach upwards of $12,000.

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Marla McKenna can be reached at mmckenna@starexponent.com or 540/825-0773.

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