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Board, lawyer spar over prayer

Hernando County School Board attorney Karen Gaffney has made her point clear: In her view, the invocations board members use to open their meetings are unconstitutional and indefensible.

She gave board members her opinion in a Sept. 30 memo and in an Oct. 17 missive, days after her initial advice was publicly assailed. The case Gaffney relied upon, from the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, "has been cited with approval by 13 other courts," she wrote.

"It has never been distinguished, criticized, not approved or not followed," Gaffney wrote of the ruling in Coles v. Cleveland Board of Education. "Accordingly, it remains my opinion that this particular case will be followed at any subsequent challenges to the issue of prayer at school board meetings."

The court found in the Coles case that prayer at school board meetings violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits government from establishing religion or prohibiting free exercise of religion because "the school board's practice in this case conveys the message of government endorsement of religion in the public school system."

Board members, scheduled to discuss the issue at a 3 p.m. workshop today, say Gaffney is entitled to her viewpoint. But they don't share it.

"I don't think we're on legally indefensible grounds," board Chairman John Druzbick said. "If she feels we are terribly wrong and wants to back up her opinion, that's what she will have to do. There just hasn't been an outcry. There should be no reason why this should be a big deal."

Druzbick said he supports keeping the status quo, in which board members and the superintendent rotate the invocation. Some give a religious prayer, others ask for a moment of silence, and still others read inspirational, nonsectarian verses.

This decade-old practice came as a compromise after a Jewish board member challenged the use of clergy to give sectarian prayers at the start of each meeting.

And it's a resolution the board still prefers.

"Oh, goodness. What's my inclination? I don't know. Continue what we're doing until we get challenged," board member Jim Malcolm said. "I thought it was a good compromise at the time."

No one is complaining, he added, so there appears no need to change.

Board member Sandra Nicholson said Gaffney's opinion does not constitute a challenge.

"The challenge would be facing a suit, if someone threatens to file a suit against us because they're so interested in the board meetings that they want to attend, but they're so offended by something that is said there," she explained.

Gaffney might think invocations are indefensible, Nicholson said. "She doesn't have to defend it yet."

Except to the board members.

"I don't think she can cite a Supreme Court case that says school prayers aren't allowed in commencement ceremonies or at the beginning of school board meetings," board member Robert Wiggins said. "I would think I certainly would have heard about it, and it would have had to be fairly recent. I just think she's being overly cautious."

Malcolm suggested that the only reason a challenge might emerge would be because of Gaffney's statements. He guessed that even if the board upholds the rule now, few will want to spend money defending something their own attorney has decried.

"I'm sure there is going to be a challenge shortly after and the practice is going to change," Malcolm said. "But I'm not going to be the one to spearhead that."

Wiggins agreed that he would rather spend money on teacher salaries, textbooks or computers than on a legal defense. He does not figure the issue will get that far, though.

"It seems foolish, when the Supreme Court and Congress open their sessions every day with a prayer," he said.

The board will talk about the invocation during a review of how its agenda is structured. Gaffney did not return calls from the Times on Monday seeking her comment.

_ Jeffrey S. Solochek covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solocheksptimes.com.

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