School district suspends public prayer at football games and board meetings

Pea Ridge Schools
Posted at 10:13 PM, Dec 11, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-11 23:13:47-05

PEA RIDGE, Ark. (KFSM)  — There will no longer be public prayer before games or school board meetings at one Arkansas school district.

According to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a local Pea Ridge resident contacted the organization about the public prayer broadcast before football games and school board meetings.

“By allowing a speaker, whether it be a student, pastor, someone like that to lead everyone in prayer before the game that’s the school district signing off on that message," said Chris Line, Freedom From Religion Foundation Staff Attorney.

The foundation says a prayer at public school-sanctioned events is unconstitutional.

“That comes from the establishment clause of the First Amendment," Line said. "Now the establishment clause protects our separation between church and state. It prevents public officials from imposing their personal religious beliefs through government mechanisms."

A letter was sent to the school district that outlines the complaint and cited several court cases that support the foundation's claim.

According to the Pea Ridge School Board President Jeff Neil the decision to discontinue prayer was based on advice from the school district's legal counsel.

“I think giving them the opportunity is better than taking it and removing it completely. I think there are more people upset about it than people are not upset about it," said David Austin, Lead Pastor at the Ridge Church.

Austin says when he heard the news it was heartbreaking.

“Everyone has a right to pray or not to pray," Austin said.

Austin says he isn’t sure yet if this is something the church will fight.

“I think we have to be very cautious and very strategic in the way that we present certain things, but I also don’t believe that we ought to just as the church walk away with our hands in our pocket and not say anything," Austin said.

5NEWS reached to the Pea Ridge Schools Superintendent Rick Neal and School Board President Jeff Neil for an interview about the decision. The request was denied.

The school district released the following statement:

A recording of Monday's Board Meeting can be found live on the FB page. Here is a direct link: After the choir's performance, the video meeting begins at about 10:00.

“I know that there is noticeably something absent from this meeting. Traditionally we have started our meetings with prayer,” said Pea Ridge School Board President Jeff Neil at Monday nights meeting. “I would say that the board certainly invites the prayers of the community for this district. This is not a decision that we take lightly, however, we have to be cognizant of the taxpayer's money.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to the school district outlining the complaint against prayer at school events along with court cases supporting that “prayer in school is unconstitutional.”

We recognize the sensitivity of this topic. If not heeded, the district risks being sued. The board’s duty is to make decisions in the best interest of the district. In doing so the topics can be difficult and controversial ones that ultimately come down to inclusiveness and financial impact.

Much of our community is aware of the personal views of the individuals selflessly serving on our board. As always, we encourage families and individuals to exercise their personal beliefs regardless of what those may be.

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