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No More Prayer At School Board Meetings?
August 21 1999 4:31 P.M. EDT
ACLU targets prayer at school board meetings

By The Associated Press


LYNCHBURG, Va. While most controversy over school prayer has centered on praying inside school buildings, a federal court ruling could make prayer at school board meetings extinct.

"We have always felt that prayers (at) school board meetings violated the separation of church and state," said Kent Willis, director of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU didn't pursue the issue until it felt it was on firm legal ground.

"This new case changes things dramatically," Willis said. "It would appear that what many school boards ... are doing is unconstitutional."

The ACLU, he said, will be examining prayer at school board meetings and asking boards to stop the practice.

"When a young person is in a formal environment, it is very important that no impression is given that the government is promoting religion," Willis said. "If the state promotes religion in general or any religion in particular, because it is so powerful, it is likely to have a coercive effect."

The 6th U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in March that it was unconstitutional for the Cleveland, Ohio, Board of Education to open each meeting with a prayer. A major factor in the decision was the presence of students as representatives on the board and in attendance at the meetings.

Robert M. O'Neil, a professor of law at the University of Virginia and director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, said prayer at school board meetings is "in some sense coercive to both the staff of an institution or the public.

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