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Author Topic: Delaware School Board Sued for Public Prayer  (Read 1680 times)
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« on: April 14, 2005, 02:36:13 PM »

Legal Group Defends Delaware School Board Sued for Public Prayer

by Jim Brown and Jenni Parker
April 13, 2005

(AgapePress) - A federal court is being asked to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the ACLU against a Delaware school board vice president, Reginald Helms, and his colleagues on the Indian River School District (IRSD) Board of Education. The board members were targeted in the suit because they were opening monthly board meetings with prayer.

The controversy has an increasingly lengthy history. An official with the IRSD Board of Education contacted the Rutherford Institute back in August 2004, asking for help after the Wilmington, Delaware, branch of the American Civil Liberties Union demanded that board members stop opening their business meetings with prayer. The Institute agreed to represent Helms.

Meanwhile, despite pressure from the civil liberties organization to refrain from praying at public events, the school board members persisted, even opening an August 24 meeting with a brief invocation. That action garnered the approval of several hundred members of the community who had gathered to attend the meeting. The crowd broke into applause as board president Harvey Walls asked a board member to lead the group in an opening word of prayer.

The ACLU filed suit in February 2005 against Helms and the entire Indian River School Board in their personal and professional capacities, alleging the district's practice of opening the school board meetings with a prayer is unconstitutional. Rutherford Institute filed a motion in response, asking the court to dismiss the case and arguing that Helms, as a school board member, should be immune from liability claims under the established doctrine of absolute legislative immunity.

Rutherford Institute's president, attorney John Whitehead, says the ACLU has "a huge blind spot" when it comes to religion. "Their main motive, in my opinion, is to secularize schools -- and that's it," he observes.

Of course, Whitehead notes, "There are other groups out there like the Americans United for Separation of Church and State that have the same philosophy, which is, by the time a child steps off that school bus and steps onto that sidewalk going into that public school, the mention of God should essentially cease until that child leaves school and goes home."

But while the ACLU and similar groups argue that prayer in school settings is a violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, the head of Rutherford Institute contends that what is actually unconstitutional is banning the school board prayers and throwing out hundreds of years of tradition. He says the highest court in the land has established that the ACLU's drive to secularize the public sphere is not consistent with American law or tradition.

"The Supreme Court has said that we are a religious people and our institutions presuppose a supreme being," Whitehead says. In the case of Marsh v. Chambers, he asserts, the high court was "on point" in upholding legislative prayer by chaplains in Nebraska. The question in the IRSD case, he notes, is "whether if [prayer] is connected to a school it's somehow different."

Whitehead says only time -- and the outcome of this case -- will tell. However, the Rutherford Institute president is hopeful that his legal group, an international non-profit organization committed to defending citizens' constitutional freedoms and human rights, will be able to litigate the matter successfully.

"I think that there is Supreme Court precedent to say that these are legislative type prayers because school boards are considered legislative type bodies," Whitehead notes, "so we're hoping that in the end it will be upheld as constitutional." Meanwhile, he says he commends the Indian River School District officials for holding to the truth and standing up for their rights.


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