School board will keep on praying

State panel adopts policy that still allows 'remarks'

Published: Friday, March 11 2005 12:16 p.m. MST

Despite objections from atheists, the Utah State Board of Education will keep praying — if members feel like it — to open its monthly meetings.

The state school board voted Friday to adopt a formal policy on "Welcoming Remarks," which traditionally have included prayer. And the policy still allows that.

Opening remarks will rotate to individual board members, who can "offer an inspirational thought, provide for a moment of silence, or provide appropriate welcoming and solemnizing remarks."

The choice would be up to the board member, who also could invite a community member to offer the welcome instead, so long as nobody attempts to control what the person says.

"You have this continuum (where we could say), 'We don't care if you litigate' . . . or, 'We're not going to take any risks, we're not going to have any prayer at all,' " said board member Debra Roberts. "What we're trying to say is, we're going to keep the spirit of this . . . and you as an individual choose what is right."

The policy, initiated by complaints by the organization Utah Atheists, was not approved unanimously, however. Representatives of the atheist community did not respond to Deseret Morning News invitations to comment Friday.

A non-voting State Board of Regents member suggested the policy had become a distraction from more pressing board issues. Others questioned why the board couldn't just open with the Pledge of Allegiance and move on.

"I will continue to pray for you and with you if you want," board member Greg Haws said. "But I would prefer to just . . . say welcome, let's get on with the business, rather than taking time to . . . fulfill this balancing act so I can stand up and pray for you in public."

Utah Atheists has asked the board to stop opening meetings with prayers, which it said typically follow the tradition of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and give the appearance the public school system is tied to the church.

"We are not suggesting that 'welcoming thoughts' be opened to the public, since that leaves the door open to uncontrollable confrontation," Utah Atheists director Julian Hatch said in a January letter to the board. "We merely suggest that the welcome be restricted to appropriate secular greetings consistent with conducting the business of the board."

The issue arose last April with the group's complaint about school board practices statewide. Months later, Carol Lear, state coordinator for school law and legislation, argued the state board's opening remarks were legal, but sought to clarify the practice in policy.

The State Office of Education also reached out to local districts last December, suggesting their boards create public prayer policies and consider using phrases more neutral than "opening prayer" or "invocation" on their public meeting agendas. The Provo Board of Education, for one, planned to heed the advice.

The letter also indicated local boards could limit opening remarks to board members or open the forum to all.

The state board set its policy Friday. And Lear noted Utah Atheists probably won't like it.

Member John Pingree indicated he had mixed feelings on the issue. But he noted that when the atheists approached the board, "they were anxious to prevent me from expressing myself."

"I don't think prayer is necessary to have an effective state board meeting," Pingree said, "but . . . I want to take a stand on this."


E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com

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