School Board members divided on invocations before meetings

'I'm curious to see what other districts are doing in that area,' board member Colleen Conklin said.

School Board member Janet McDonald (Photo by Jonathan Simmons)
School Board member Janet McDonald (Photo by Jonathan Simmons)
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School Board Chairwoman Janet McDonald would like to invite individuals affiliated with local social and faith communities to open School Board meetings with messages about what they do to support students — and with invocations, in the instances in which invited guests would like to provide them.

Other board members, speaking during the board’s Sept. 17 workshop, were less sure that’s a good idea, and asked for board attorney Kristy Gavin to gather more information to present to the board during a future workshop. Only one local government board within Flagler County — the Bunnell City Commission — regularly features invocations. (Ten out of 10 recent regular Bunnell City Commission meeting videos posted to Bunnell’s YouTube channel feature Christian prayers.)

School Board members had been surprised at an Aug. 20 board meeting when a pastor invited by McDonald had delivered an invocation at the start of the meeting.

Board member Andy Dance called the invocation “kind of a major shift,” and one the board should discuss.

McDonald, in her comments at the Sept. 17 workshop, didn’t frame her intent as establishing a tradition of prayer, specifically.

The idea, she said, was for “community organizations, faith groups, social groups, that have links to our community” to have a chance to speak about what they do, and, in particular, about “how they do a prevention leg of our mental health initiative, not just a response to emergencies.”

Dance suggested the board’s first step should be to consider whether it’s even interested in entertaining invocations or prayers.

“I would prefer we stay with the way that we were running the meetings, without reference to an invocation or prayer,” he said. “So if there are two others that would like to continue with tradition we’ve had moving forward, we can eliminate that from discussion and then talk about ways to do proper recognitions.”

He added that board meetings already have a regular feature that could be used to recognize community organizations  at the beginning of each meeting.

“We recognize people at every meeting during spotlights for things that they contribute to the school district,” he said. “That’s what that’s available for.”

McDonald said her proposal could be included as a spotlight, but Dance replied that a spotlight is different from an invocation.

“A spotlight is just highlighting what they’re doing,” he said. “So we have that already as an avenue.”

“I understand,” McDonald said. “I felt that it was important to do, to follow the lead of the Legislature and maybe bring back what Bunnell does, what some of the other communities that I know about do. ... So that’s why we’re having this conversation, to see what the policies are. Obviously, it’s not something that you’re comfortable with.”

Dance paused, started to say something, then said he’d save it for another time.

“I think the other thing that just  needs to be touched on, which led to a lot of the confusion, was agenda changes that aren’t part of our agenda review process,” he said. “We have to make a conscious effort to follow the procedures that we have and avoid issues like this. This all could have been avoided if we had followed the proper procedures that we painstakingly went through to set up how we gauge appropriateness for our meetings, by vetting them through our agenda review process.”

“Thank you, I appreciate that; I had asked for it to be put on the agenda several times,” McDonald said. “The fact that it didn’t get put on; I’m sorry it didn’t get it put on.”

The legalities of prayers before public meetings

Board attorney Kristy Gavin told board members the board would be within the law if it establishes invocations.

“School districts do it; it may not be called an invocation,” she said. “Even Duval County does it; they don’t call it an invocation.”

The Duval County School Board’s process, involving a “thought for the day” that may or may not be religious, has drawn complaints from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Gavin said that the legal precedent pertaining to prayer at legislative bodies is different from the precedent concerning the permissibility of prayers at school functions such as graduations.

“That’s where they say you can’t do that,” she said. “But school board meetings have been treated akin to legislative meetings. And so, as long as you make sure ... you’re not saying there are groups that we would be excluding, then you’re fine.”

‘An invocation that is universal’

Board member Colleen Conklin wasn’t entirely sure what McDonald was requesting.

“So it’s not, if I’m hearing correctly — is it an actual invocation? Or ... it could be an invocation, could be a thought of the day?” Conklin said.

It could be either, McDonald said.

Board member Trevor Tucker asked about the particulars of the procedure for inviting invocations.

Gavin said they would be prearranged. One school district, she said, called organizations listed in the phone book and asked if they’d offer an invocation.

“It sounds like that’s more staff time, so I’m going to say I’m not for it,” Tucker said.

McDonald said she didn’t think there would be any need to go through a list of community services.

Conklin said she’d like to hear more about how it could work.

“Because what I’m hearing is not a straight prayer,” she said. “I don’t even know if it would be something called an invocation.”

Conklin said that she’d asked for a transcript of the invocation delivered at the previous board meeting, and had intended to read it during her comments at the conclusion of the Sept. 17 board meeting. (She did not end up doing so.)

“There was nothing that was stated in those comments that I can imagine anyone in the world disagreeing with. ... It was very universal,” she said. “Having someone from Kiwanis come to give the thought of the day, to me, is not a problem. To have someone come, whether it’s a rabbi or a pastor, provide a thought of the day or an invocation that is universal, I don’t see the harm in that. ... I’m curious to see what other districts are doing in that area.”

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