Kerfuffle over Christian prayer at board meeting is overblown

September 25, 2023 12:52 am

After Suffolk School Board chair Tyron Riddick denied parent Angela Kilgore’s request to pray from the podium during a board meeting on Aug. 10, several members of the public in attendance began praying aloud, which triggered a recess of the meeting. (Suffolk Schools/YouTube)

Publicity surrounding the temporary shutdown of a recent school board meeting in Suffolk – sparked by a citizen asking if she could pray publicly for the division as the 2023-24 year approached – is yet the latest example of some Christians complaining they’re under siege in America.

They’re not.

Especially when Christians account for nearly two-thirds of all Americans, the Pew Center estimates. That number far outpaces people who aren’t affiliated with any religion at 30% and adherents of all other religions – including Jews, Muslims and Hindus – at 6%.

The mini-controversy in Virginia encompasses a slew of issues: transgender policies in schools; the First Amendment clauses about free speech and making no law respecting an establishment of religion; and the common courtesy we should practice while acknowledging, in government spaces, that one person’s sincere profession of faith isn’t always welcomed by others.

Conservative media outlets and some Christian groups – including the Founding Freedoms Law Center, the legal arm of the Family Foundation – say praying Virginians, including those at the Suffolk school board meeting, are being censored. That’s an overstated, cynical tack.

Some background:

Comments from several Suffolk citizens at the Aug. 10 school board meeting focused on policies affecting transgender students, including which bathrooms and locker rooms they should use, and the rights parents should have regarding their own children. The state Department of Education under Gov. Glenn Youngkin had recently enacted its model policies for transgender students in K-12 schools, directing students to use facilities that match their biological sex and making it harder to change their names or pronouns at school.

As The Washington Post reported, the model policies are not law or stiff requirements, and this administration’s guidance is less friendly to transgender students than former Gov. Ralph Northam’s. (That should be no surprise given Youngkin’s early executive order on parental rights. He hyped the issue on the way to narrowly winning the gubernatorial contest in 2021.)

At that Suffolk School Board meeting, parent Angela Kilgore, whose youngest child had recently graduated, went to the podium. “It takes all of us as a collective community to raise these children, not just Suffolk Public Schools,” Kilgore said.

And then: “If you guys don’t mind, I’d like to pray for Suffolk Public Schools with all of you.” Board Chairman Tyron Riddick warned that wasn’t allowed. Kilgore left the podium.

Angela Kilgore, seen here speaking at an Aug. 10 Suffolk School Board meeting, asked to pray from the podium, an action that board chair Tyron Riddick denied because it is against the law. (Suffolk Schools/YouTube)

“I love prayer,” Riddick said. “But this is not the place, per the law.”

Several people then began saying aloud the Lord’s Prayer, with some standing. Riddick called for a recess and asked for officers to clear the room. That was perhaps an overreaction, but he was trying to maintain the rules.

After the meeting, the Christian law center sent a letter to the school board saying it was “impermissible viewpoint discrimination to exclude religious perspectives from a public forum,” citing court decisions.

Kilgore told me last week the prayer by folks in the audience was spontaneous. She said she had no prior affiliation with the law center and that it contacted her later.

The Navy veteran said “God’s moving me.” That spurred her to ask to pray for the school division.

“I didn’t know how political education had become,” Kilgore continued. “With all the turmoil going on, the tension, I wanted to pray for everybody to come together.”

I believe Kilgore. But I also think the center and Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation, saw an opportunity to flog the issue to claim religious persecution.

The school board’s attorney countered the Founding Freedoms Law Center’s missive by sending it a letter of his own.

“A policy that may incidentally burden religion may nevertheless be considered neutral and withstand constitutional challenge under the Free Exercise Clause,” Wendell Waller wrote. He cited court decisions allowing “limited public forums” like school board meetings to apply restrictions, as long as they are “reasonable and viewpoint neutral.”

Cobb, by email Wednesday, said the following: “Religious speech should be allowed in the same way that non-religious speech is. The Constitution doesn’t allow governments to disfavor only the religious speech of its citizens.”

In FOIA ruling, Va. Supreme Court upholds public’s right to be in meeting rooms

I side with Suffolk officials. What the board wanted to do was keep the meeting on task and not veer into a whole host of prayers from speakers of various religions, then and in the future. Waller also wrote that the board has a policy prohibiting “expressive activities” and “not just religious expressions.”

Maybe you remember a Snickers candy commercial produced in 1996, which is a parody of such prayer-making. I immediately thought of it when the kerfuffle in Suffolk arose.

In it, a football coach is prepping his team for a game. “This year we gotta be a little more ‘politically correct’ with the team prayer,” he says, sneering a tad. “Hit it padre.”

A Catholic priest, Jewish rabbi, Native American elder, bhagwan and others make brief prayers for health and victory for the players.

“Not going anywhere for a while?” an offscreen narrator intones. “Grab a Snickers.”

The humor is in how Americans bend over backward to be fair when it comes to religion. What’s left unsaid, though, is that if the government puts its thumb on the scale for one religion over another, it invariably suggests the government favors the former.

Religious liberty has a long and messy history in America

We can’t have that in the United States. We decry such tyranny in theocracies or fundamentalist countries.

We all can pray for our school divisions – silently, aloud at home, in places of worship. Some rules apply in public forums that indeed seem harsh.

The benefits, though, outweigh the drawbacks.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]