ALLIANCE, Ohio (WJW) — Members of Stark County’s Marlington Local School Board often begin their meetings with a prayer, and an out-of-state foundation maintains the custom violates the U.S. Constitution.
During a recent meeting posted on YouTube, a student called upon by the school board, said “Dear Lord, I pray that we have a good meeting tonight, I pray that you give wisdom to our board members as they discuss our future.”
The prayer tradition at the board meetings has the support of many people in the surrounding area of Stark County.
Pastor Steve Smythers of First Christian Church in Alliance, told Fox 8, “I think it’s needed, I think it gives them guidance, I think it brings direction and I think it shows that they realize there’s a higher power.”
Longtime Alliance resident Sue Dehoff echoed those sentiments “In my estimation, the people of Marlington follow Christian principles, they might not be all Christian but they follow the principles that we’ve been taught.” Dehoff said
However, an organization called the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wisconsin, says it received a complaint from a citizen about the prayer at the board meetings.
“Beyond just being uncomfortable, just feeling that it really violated their First Amendment rights and it was very upsetting, the board was essentially promoting their own personal religious beliefs,” said Samantha Lawrence, spokesperson for the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The organization sent a letter to the Marlington School Board, asking the board to stop the practice of praying before meetings, on the grounds that it violates the Constitution and the separation of church and state.
“Public schools have to be neutral when it comes to religion and non-religion and that includes the school board, the administration and every part or employee of the public school, Lawrence said. “We probably don’t want the government to be involving itself in the church or religion and choosing a side or choosing a preferred religion.” he added.
The Marlington prayer controversy isn’t the first time the Freedom From Religion Foundation has raised a religious issue with a school district in Stark County.
In a case a decade ago, the organization objected to public schools holding their graduation ceremonies at local churches. After receiving that complaint, the schools moved the graduation ceremonies to non-religious sites.
Some Stark County residents and religious leaders are urging the Marlington School Board to fight the current effort by the foundation to stop the prayers at the board meetings.
“I think they do this for spite, I don’t think they give a hoot about the Marlington School District. They have nothing vested here, it’s just about stopping people from praying in public,” said Pastor Smythers.
“I hope they don’t comply but I don’t want them to put any money or energy into fighting it,” said Dehoff.
The school board and their legal counsel are discussing their options, but have not made a final decision on the prayer before board meetings.