Orange County School Board Pressured to Remove Prayer from Meetings

October 9, 2020 Updated: October 11, 2020

COSTA MESA, Calif.—A group that advocates the separation of church and state is urging the Orange County Board of Education to remove its “In God We Trust” plaque from the boardroom and ban prayers before meetings.

According to its website, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) is “dedicated to advancing the separation of religion and government as the only way to ensure freedom of religion, including the right to believe or not believe, for all.”

An invocation prior to the start of meetings has been part of the five-member school board’s tradition.

Nearly a dozen pastors and parents in the county made appeals to the board Oct. 7 during public comments, pleading for the trustees not to adhere to the denunciation.

“’In God We Trust’ is the thread that our country needs to get us back on course with God,” said Orange County resident Elaine Harmon.

“This is the only country in the world … that has that purpose and privilege. When God is denied, our country is denied,” she said.

Sherri Miller, member of the Irvine Prayer Chapter for Concerned Women of America, said “’In God We Trust’ is a part of who we are as Americans, as we the people, as part of our nation’s Judeo Christian heritage.”

Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute, also addressed the board. He said he’s litigated the constitutionality of “In God We Trust” before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals with a victory of 3–0.

The Pacific Justice Institute is a legal nonprofit seeking to protect religious freedoms, parental rights, and other civil liberties.

“I want you, the board, to know that you should be confident, that, number one, it’s constitutional, and number two, that if it is challenged, you will prevail,” Dacus said.

“This has been very well established and is not a case law that our national motto is constitutional,” he said.

A Letter Addressed to the Board

In an Oct. 5 letter to Jeffrey Riel, the school board’s attorney, the AU said school board prayer “improperly promotes and aids religion, coerces attendees to take part in religious exercise, and affiliates the Board with religion.”

The letter was signed by Richard B. Katskee, legal director; Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director; and Patrick Grubel, Madison legal fellow.

Following the letter, the board sought to amend the invocation by permitting individuals to excuse themselves before the invocation.

The board proposed excluding all students from invocations “to every extent possible.” And, if necessary, the board would adjust the agenda to separate the invocation from matters that could impact a student’s educational experience.

Trustees are not permitted to present the invocation. Therefore, in the proposed amendment, the board would allow speakers from diverse religious backgrounds to lead invocations.

But the AU wants the OCBE to end the invocation tradition in its entirety, to “respect the religious diversity and constitutional rights of its students and other constituents,” according to the letter.

In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that prayers could be conducted at city council meetings. Trustee Mari Barke, representing the second district, told The Epoch Times that “what we’re doing is nothing unusual of other government entities.”

On Oct. 8, the board adopted Administrative Regulation (AR) to implement and explain the Board Policy (BP) 100-12. The BP/AR 100-12 permits presenters to start meetings with invocation and inspirational words not exclusive to one religion.

“BP/AR 100-12 are not intended to require any person, particularly students, to observe, witness, or participate in any legislative prayer, invocation, inspirational words, moment of silence (‘invocation or inspirational words’) and any such presentation by a Presenter shall not impact any person’s ability to participate in the Board meeting,” the policy reads.