Prayer session outside public elementary school causes controversy in Florida

According to the attorney of the school board of Clay County, Florida, “It is a violation of the United States Constitution for a teacher, school administrator or other school district employee to join in a prayer session during their work time.” That means, they say, that Baptist pastor Ron Baker can’t conduct voluntary prayer meetings at the flagpoles of four elementary schools at 8:15 in the morning any more.

The school board apparently issued its statement in response to complaints about Baker’s meetings from an atheist group, the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation. The Foundation’s co-president, Annie Laurie Gaylor, said she was “so pleased to see that someone else has some legal common sense.”

But does the school board’s statement makes sense? Where exactly does it say in the Constitution that government employees aren’t allowed to join a prayer session? If I remember rightly, it actually says, “Congress should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In general, the courts have held that the free exercise clause covers religiously motivated actions and not just internal belief, so wouldn’t a prayer session count as “the free exercise” of religion? And how is “prayer session” even defined? Does it extend to personal prayers, prayed soundlessly in the stress of a school day? It’s unconstitutional for the government to force employees to pray — but the Constitution certainly doesn’t forbid them from doing so. Perhaps the school board simply means to imply the government isn’t paying employees to pray; it’s paying them to work — and a case could be made for that, I suppose.

But, even if we accept the school board’s statement, how does Baker’s prayer meeting violate it? Unless Baker is a school district employee — and he doesn’t appear to be — what jurisdiction does the school board have over his actions at all? And the meeting occurs before the school day technically starts. Is it just that school employees might join the session?

That seems to be it — because another school official has suggested Baker compromise and conduct his meeting even earlier — before school employees are even present on the school grounds.

But Baker remains resolute: He’ll meet anyone who wants to pray at the flagpole at 8:15 a.m. — just like he has for 12 years. In fact, since the controversy started, the crowd at the flag has only grown.