OREM — The words "opening prayer" may soon be nixed from school-board meeting agendas in favor of the less-controversial term "opening remarks."

The semantics is important to critics of prayer at public and government meetings. And the change in terminology means that in addition to prayer, poetry, inspirational quotations and excerpts from literature would be acceptable at the outset of meetings during which elected officials and educators discuss the operation and oversight of Utah's schools.

The Utah State Office of Education sent a letter to school districts in December, suggesting that the locally elected school boards create public-prayer policies to make sure they are not violating the Utah Constitution and the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The letter from State Superintendent of Public Instruction Patti Harrington urged school board members to consider using phrases on public meeting agendas that seem more neutral than "opening prayer" or "invocation."

For example, according to the letter, introductory remarks at the outset of board meetings could be described on agendas as "opening remarks," a time of "reverence" or "welcoming remarks."

The letter also tells school boards that, according to legal advice, school boards can establish a policy that permits only board members to give opening remarks.

But if a board doesn't limit the opening-remark time to only members of the panel, all people should be extended the opportunity to pray or give remarks at the outset of the meeting.

If that is the case, selection of the person should not be discriminatory, and no restrictions should be imposed on content, the letter states.

Some of Utah's districts do not have to consider changing practice or policy regarding prayer because they don't open public meetings in such a manner.

Others are heeding the suggestions.

The Provo School District Board of Education intends to strike the word "invocation" to mark the beginning of meetings, says Superintendent Randy Merrill.

"It will be changing to 'opening remark,' " he said.

Others believe they already operate within separation-of-church-and-state guidelines.

Nebo School District's attorney has determined a change at its board meetings is not necessary.

"We don't have any policy. But our practice is to have an invocation, and it's designated just for the school board members. What invocation actually means is to invoke help or support. It doesn't necessarily mean a prayer," said Lana Hiskey, Nebo's spokeswoman.

The state education office cannot force local school boards to change their meeting procedures — such control is maintained at local levels.

However, the State Board of Education can make suggestions based on changes it is making to its own board meetings and agendas, said Carol Lear, the state-education office's coordinator for school law and legislation.

The state school board will vote March 4 on a proposal to require the use of the phrase "opening remarks" on meeting agendas. Harrington said this week it is already standard practice at the board's meetings.

"People may still give prayers," she said. "Prayer is a personal volition of what they want to do. If they choose that, it's their choice."

Utah Atheists wrote a letter to the state board in April requesting policy information.

The state board did not respond to the letter because it appeared to target local school boards, over which the state has no control, Lear said.

The letter was part of Utah Atheists' effort to access information about how school boards and cities and counties throughout the state handle the prayer issue, said Chris Allen, a member of Utah Atheists.

"For months they (the state board) wouldn't reply, so in November I went to their meeting as a representative of Utah Atheists. When they came to their prayer, I rose and objected," said Allen, who also works with the American Atheists and the Society of Separationists.

The state sent the letter of suggestions to the local school boards on Dec. 3, after subsequent correspondence between the atheists and the state following Allen's objections.

The Utah Atheists hesitate to say the new policy eases all of their concerns, however.

Utah Atheists refer to a lawsuit aimed at stopping prayer at Salt Lake City Council meetings. (The City Council no longer prays at meetings.) The Society of Separationists was satisfied in 1992 when 3rd District Judge Dennis Frederick determined the state's constitution clearly prohibits government support of religious practices.

The ruling was appealed to the Utah Supreme Court and partially reversed, said Julian Hatch, a director of Utah Atheists. The court stated that "direct expenditures" of government time and resources for prayer was illegal. However, "indirect expenditures" in which non-elected people said prayers were OK.

"Essentially what the court did by that ruling is they set up a free speech forum," Hatch said. "That free speech forum . . . is prayer and/or opening remarks."

But the composition of a forum is under debate.

The atheists believe that members of the State School Board should not be allowed to lead prayer or opening remarks because they are not a forum that represents all people.

But state-education office officials believe the state school board, with 15 members representing specific areas of the state along with a number of senior staff, is representative.

Lear said the Salt Lake case was not part of the state board's consideration because of the difference in size and representation.

"The board members are discussing a number of possibilities," Lear said, regarding efforts to determine how to rework the board's policies.

The atheists group maintains it is not trying to be a party-crasher.

"We want to have a good experience, too. We want to make sure everyone can equally participate," Hatch said. "That means atheists and all religions, (even) the Girl Scouts can come and participate."


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