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Prayer issue pops up again

School Board member Carol Snyder says she may make a motion for a moment of silent reflection at the beginning of meetings.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 13, 2001


INVERNESS -- After months of community debate, the School Board today may finally take its only formal action on the issue of prayer before board meetings.

Board member Carol Snyder, who raised the questions which ignited the emotional debate in November, has asked for the issue to be added to the agenda at today's regular meeting. Board Chairwoman Patience Nave said that, since there has been so much discussion on the topic, she did not feel right simply adding the prayer topic to the agenda, although that is normally the chairwoman's prerogative.

Even if the majority of the board doesn't agree to formally put the item on the agenda, Snyder said she will make a motion anyway.

"The first motion I'm going to make will be for the agenda to be revised . . . and if that doesn't work, then I'll make a motion for a moment of silent reflection at the beginning of board meetings," Snyder said Monday.

She said that after all the research she has done on the issue, she believes that the silent reflection is the only choice to keep the district in line with the Constitution.

If no other board member seconds Snyder's motion, it will die.

Even if there is a second to the motion, the other four board members have expressed little interest in changing their prayer policy or adopting the silent reflection idea when they have spoken about the issue.

Nave said she thought the issue was settled after the lengthy public workshop on Feb. 27 after dozens of people from a crowd of more than 600 spoke about their faith and encouraged the board to continue allowing religious expression in the schools.

"I think we've just about talked this thing to death," Nave said Monday. "I thought we were going to continue on as we'd been going. . . . What we've been doing has a long precedence."

Nave said that if there was no change in direction by the board today, she planned to follow tradition, which is to allow board members who want to lead the group's invocation to have the opportunity to do so in their own way.

She said that invitation will also be extended to Snyder.

Nave said she will not lead the board into any situation which might threaten the district's legal position and that no one has told her to avoid bringing the prayer issue to a vote. She said she simply believes there is no need to bring the issue to a vote because she has already heard the wishes of the board's majority.

Snyder had raised the issue on the day she took office in November. She suggested that the board consider changing its tradition of making nearly every opening prayer an overtly Christian prayer. Snyder has argued that the board represents a diverse group of citizens and students, and a more general prayer is needed.

That suggestion sparked a firestorm of controversy, including petition drives directed against Snyder and even the appearance of a pagan from Marion County who has interrupted Christian prayers at the meetings by incantations to a Wiccan deity.

The issue has also drawn the attention of several groups interested in constitutional and religious rights issues, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Anti-Defamation League and the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

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