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Clash expected in Citrus on prayer

A School Board workshop Tuesday will open up the controversy to all residents' opinions.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 26, 2001


INVERNESS -- Carol Snyder considered her position to be simple and obvious.

In a community growing ever more diverse, the School Board running the public schools should not open nearly all its meetings with an overtly Christian prayer.

During the 16 years Snyder served on a school board in Ohio, she and her colleagues never prayed and it wasn't an issue. She found out quickly that prayer is an issue here.

Prayer and another question that Snyder raised -- concerning the propriety of a Christian group meeting in school during school hours -- have captured community interest since November, when Snyder took office.

On Tuesday, the community will get its chance to speak out. The School Board is holding a workshop at which residents can have their say.

The board won't take any action Tuesday. Rather, it will listen to, and talk about, two topics: how to open future meetings and whether the guidelines concerning club meetings at schools need changing.

Board members already are nearing consensus on both issues. But with dozens of emotional speakers ready to address the board Tuesday, the outcome is far from certain.

Bus loads of local churchgoers are expected, especially since School Board Chairwoman Patience Nave has dug in and said she will not acquiesce to Snyder's point of view. She has said she will not betray her identity as a Christian for the sake of compromise.

"I am not ashamed of the fact that I am a Christian," Nave said. "We have freedom of religion, not freedom from religion."

Also expected are citizens of non-Christian beliefs who want to be heard. A chief player among those will be Charles Schrader, a community activist and pagan who has interrupted Christian opening prayers at board meetings by chanting his own invocation to his Wiccan goddess.

"I hope and I have cast so many spells that this board will return their purpose to the education of our children and leave prayer a personal thing and religion a personal thing," Schrader said.

Uniformed deputies have been a regular sight at recent meetings; they are expected back in force at the workshop.

Board members say they want to end the issue Tuesday. Still, board member Sandra "Sam" Himmel said that will be difficult.

"Everyone will not come away happy on Tuesday night," Himmel said.

The day after Snyder took her seat on the board, she got the first call from someone sorry they had given her their vote.

The newspapers had reported Snyder's request to consider a new prayer format to be more inclusive.

"I still feel my request was reasonable," said Snyder, who noted that the calls she has gotten since have both criticized and praised her.

"The demographics of this county have changed. I'm new to this county, like a lot of people are, and these people are going to be less and less willing as time goes by to allow the same old status quo," she said.

As Snyder heard from more people, she decided she would prefer board meetings begin with a moment of silence.

Nave, meanwhile, has lived here full time less than a decade and has strongly held to her belief that, when she gives the board invocation, she must pray in her own style.

When she gave a more general prayer that did not mention Jesus at a recent meeting and Snyder publicly expressed appreciation that Nave was trying to be more inclusive, Nave took exception.

To show she would not compromise, Nave ended her prayer at the last meeting in the name of Jesus, "my savior." She said she wasn't imposing her savior on anyone else; she was just being true to her Christian ideals.

Although Snyder and Nave have differing perspectives, both said they would agree to a policy that calls for the prayer duties to rotate among board members.

Pat Deutschman, another board member, also supports that plan. She tries to offer inclusive prayers.

"I'm not here to offend people . . . but I don't want to change the way I pray," Himmel said. "I guess other areas have already had this battle . . . but this is such a strong Christian area."

Board member Ginger Bryant also supports prayer rotation; for her, a moment of silence is the way to go.

"I don't feel comfortable praying in front of men who may or may not be Christians," she said.

Superintendent David Hickey was happy to sit out the board's prayer debate. But a month later, just before winter break, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes' Christmas party pulled him right into the action.

That party has been criticized because students had to choose between class or the party, where the content was clearly Christian messages. The loudest messages were from youth minister David Smith and the president of the FCA, Gene Himmel, son of the School Board member. Youngsters were told to announce their love of Christ or face hell.

Snyder, who received a complaint from an adult attending the event, immediately questioned the appropriateness of holding the session at school during the school day. School officials defended the party, saying that it took place during a designated activity period.

Still, Hickey and School Board attorney Spike Fitzpatrick met with principals to be sure everyone understood the law known as "equal access." The district already had a policy, but Hickey and Fitzpatrick have produced new, tightened guidelines.

The guidelines, which don't require board approval, make it clear that activity periods must be announced at least two weeks in advance so all clubs can plan meetings at that time. They also state that students who don't attend club meetings will attend supervised study time, not class.

Snyder would prefer free time to study time, but she said the new rules are satisfactory and send a strong message to principals.

"I do believe we're going to see a better adherence to the equal access policy," Snyder said.

Nave said she can live with the guidelines, although she worries about taking too much control away from administrators.

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