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Athiests Ask Education Board to End Opening Prayers

Athiests Ask Education Board to End Opening Prayers

Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The group Utah Atheists is threatening legal action if the state Board of Education doesn't stop opening its meetings with prayers, or at the very least, offer everyone a chance to speak during that time.

"It suggests discrimination against atheists in the public schools," Chris Allen told the board Friday.

The state school board meetings start with a "welcome and boardsmanship development." That typically includes a board member sharing a thought, then praying.

Allen objected to the prayers at last month's meeting and again Friday.

Board chairman Kim Burningham said the board has sought a legal opinion and would discuss the matter after the newly elected board is sworn in next month.

He called the opening "reverence" a time to reflect, seek strength or express ideas on the tasks at hand as an individual sees fit.

He then stood and prayed, seeking strength and a blessing to "make the right decision" on other policy matters before the board.

Allen counters that such prayers always are "made to Heavenly Father in the name of Jesus Christ," the tradition of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church is the most dominate religion in Utah, where 70 percent of the residents are at least nominally Mormon.

The opening prayers give the appearance the public school system is tied to the church, he said.

"Just having a reverence suggests discrimination against atheists, and public schools shouldn't do that," Allen said.

However, the state board's opening remarks are reserved for board members only and are not open to the public, making it a limited public forum, said the board's attorney, Carol Lear.

Prayer "is the spontaneous decision of the person who chooses to do it," Lear said. "There is no control of the content from the top (school bosses)."

But she said the state board likely will clarify its practice in the rules.

Lear also will talk to Utah school superintendents about opening board meetings, from neutrally stating the opening in the agenda -- "opening remarks" or "welcome" is preferable to "reverence" -- to designating who will get the opportunity.

Allen said he will monitor the situation.

Utah Atheists wrote the school board in April asking for the change.

That followed similar letters the group started sending in December 2003 to more than 150 towns across the state reminding city governments to comply with two state Supreme Court decisions and asking for the opportunity to present opening remarks.

Prayer during opening ceremonies is legal, the high court ruled in 1993, provided the opportunity to deliver the prayer is nondiscriminatory and available to all. All religions or philosophies, no matter how repugnant to the mainstream, must be welcomed.

Ten years later, the issue was revisited after the city of Murray rejected a man's request to offer a prayer, a portion of which read, "We pray that you prevent self-righteous politicians from misusing the name of God in conducting government meetings." The court ruled that cities may not deny anyone the right to participate because of the content of their message.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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