HARRISON, Ark. – The Freedom From Religion Foundation is threatening to take legal action against a school in the Ozarks.
The Wisconsin-based organization recently sent a letter to Harrison Public Schools, asking the school board to remove prayer from its meetings.
“I was a little bit shocked for an outside organization to contact me and say that one of our patrons were concerned,” says HPS school board president, Jon Burnside, “and that the patron hadn’t come through and talked to the district first.”
Burnside estimates the school board has been leading prayer at the beginning of its meetings for well over 40 years.
It’s an act, Freedom From Religion Foundation’s attorney, Patrick Elliott, says infringes upon the Constitutional rights of citizens.
“We’re looking to what the Constitution says, which was our founding document,” says Elliott, “and that’s basically saying under our First Amendment religion and government have to be separate.”
The letter from Elliott’s organization cited several court cases where it was ruled prayer should not be included at school functions. In fact, the Foundation currently has a case in California involving prayer at school board meetings.
“The court ruled in our favor, finding they violated the First Amendment and the school district there has decided to appeal,” says Elliott.
“We don’t have a final resolution but the court had ruled in our favor on this exact issue,” he says
Burnside believes prayer at school board meeting are different than prayer at athletic events or graduation ceremonies, because it involves a private meeting that is open to the public.
He says the decision on whether to continue praying at the meetings will be up to the seven-member board, but he says it may suspend prayer altogether.
“Just because we do not want to drag the district through huge costly legal fees,” he says. “It’s kind of a bullying technique, but that’s where we are.”
“I think it’s in the school board’s interest and everyone’s interest for them to comply with the law,” says Elliott, “and that would be the end of it.”
Burnside says he’s received several calls from community members since receiving the letter, the majority of which have been in support of prayer at the meetings.
However, Burnside says, many of those individuals understand continuing to lead prayer at school board meeting could lead to a legal battle.