Grove City school directors are expected Monday to vote on whether to eliminate the decades-long tradition of reciting a prayer before their meetings.
Board members had a lengthy discussion at their work session Monday. The issue was brought up a couple of months ago - and tabled - after solicitor Tim McNickle discussed the potential of a non-Christian becoming offended by the practice and hitting the district with an expensive lawsuit.
McNickle said he's been watching the tide turn in American culture for several years and a recent decision by New Wilmington schools to stop praying brought it close to home.
He reiterated on Monday that the district was not currently in danger of a lawsuit and no offended person has approached the district about the prayer tradition. But he felt the board should be informed of the risks and again suggested a moment of silence to replace the verbal prayer.
"My job is to keep you out of litigation," he said, rather than spending what could be $60,000 in a court battle over someone professing that his or her civil rights are being violated by the opening prayer.
The American Civil Liberties Union "is often the driving force behind this issue," he added, and McNickle believed that the ACLU would simply tell the board to stop its practice without a lawsuit.
A disgruntled parent of a student could sue, however.
"There's no way of knowing if they would talk to us or try to make a point," McNickle added.
Director Faye Bailey, whose husband is a minister, said she has been approached by people wanting to know more about the prayer issue.
The majority would be "disappointed to lose prayer because 'what will happen next?'" she said. "They feel it's a traditional religious community. We teach our kids to stand up. Shouldn't we as a board stand up (for prayer)?"
Bailey said she researched the topic and thought that higher court decisions made over the matter were a mixed bag.
The greatest risk of litigation came when prayer was in the middle of the meeting, she said. Grove City's prayer comes before the meeting. Another issue is giving a specific name to God, she said.
"What if there's a person who has no faith? To them, any prayer would be arguably offensive," McNickle said. "It's a fine line."
He said other districts were "trying to be proactive," he noted, by switching to a moment of silence. "We're really in the minority."
Director William Reznor said the board should listen to McNickle, since it is "rare that our solicitor provides a recommendation. I don't like it at all but this is the environment that we live in."
Board member Vern Saylor was "disgusted" that such an environment exists, but stated that no one could dictate what he believed in his heart.
"In my opinion, God doesn't care if it's vocally or not," added director William Norris.
Member Adam Renick said he's talked to about 25 of his constituents about the prayer, and they have all looked to him for guidance on what should be done, rather than giving him that guidance to take to the board.
He asked people in the audience what they thought; most were made up of district staff members except Charles Brothers and Esther Falcetta.
"I saw your faces with this issue and your eyes went very deep," Brothers said. "It is a hard decision."
He supports prayer and believed that the board being in the minority over public prayer should not be what sways it away from it - or from any issue, for that matter.
"There's something about the power of community prayer," Brothers said. "You as a board can rise and fall as a group."
He said he spoke to an attorney, who said the board could pray in a private room before the meeting; if a director didn't want to pray, he or she wouldn't be obliged and could leave the room.
"I'd like to see you have prayer as a group and come out feeling bolstered," Brothers said.
Falcetta said the district shouldn't put itself or taxpayers at financial risk. "I have a friend who's agnostic who said, 'I don't care if you pray, I just don't want to hear it,'" she said.
"To me, as a Christian, it's important to make a statement to have a moment of silence publicly and if you choose to join us, it's your option," said director Roberta Hensel.
Renick said he believed he couldn't tell his children to pray if he voted to eliminate prayer at the board meetings.
"If you are going to sway me for financial reasons, what do I tell my kids?" Renick asked the board.
Tammi Martin, principal at Hillview Intermediate Center, said eliminating open prayer at the board meetings is not "a hot topic" at her school, where there are devoutly Christian students who would be pro-prayer. A bigger issue is parents pulling their kids from certain patriotic observations, she added.
Director Scott Somora believed the moment of silence would lose its meaning over time. He believed the district shouldn't ban prayer over a perceived threat, when it has been practiced for over 40 years without any issue.
"We talk more about prayer than our budget," he said, noting the board is not following the district's policies and procedures manual on prayer or the budget.
Under the leadership of former superintendent Dr. Robert Post, budget discussions would begin in December, as stated in the policy.
Dr. Richard Mextorf, current superintendent, has had three budget discussions with the board since February.
They will vote on the final budget Monday.
Somora said the public prayer issue should have been discussed in a committee and then brought for recommendation to the board. Instead, the board meets for a workshop meeting a week before its regular voting meeting to discuss all committee issues at once.
However, Mextorf said that was not much different than Post's format of meeting an hour before the voting meeting - except that the board and public have more time to discuss district issues before a vote.
Mextorf agreed on Monday that he erred in not looking at the district's policies and procedures manual before suggesting a change to the workshop meeting, which the board adopted; but he said he was thinking of making the format more efficient.
Furthermore, the board has approved to pay the Pennsylvania School Board Association to redo the district's policy manual to be more in line with the state's, he said.
Somora believed, then, that the district should change its policy to reflect the current changes, since the PSBA rewrite will take two years.
He said he only recently became aware that the board was not following the committee structure set forth in the manual until the change for the workshop meeting was suggested by Mextorf in January, and he wanted to understand his duties as the chair of one of the committees.
Somora has brought up his concerns on numerous occasions during discussions about the budget and policy changes like prayer.
"I'm really getting tired of this grandstanding," Reznor told Somora, who responded that he has been vocal because of what constituents tell him.
McNickle and Mextorf will come up with a vote on the prayer issue for Monday, but Somora was unclear about what the wording would be - and if it should first come from the board as laid out in the district's policies.
McNickle said the board could amend the wording, but Somora wasn't certain what that meant, either.
Somora didn't think the prayer issue should be brought up for vote at all on Monday. The meeting starts at 7 p.m.
The other seven directors agreed to let Mextorf and McNickle come up with language for them to vote on the issue. One board member was absent.
"You could have private prayer (as a board) and a moment of silence," McNickle said. "They are not mutually exclusive."
Published June 13, 2012, in Allied News. Pick up a copy at 201 A Erie St., Grove City.