[NOTE: This blog post is a response the a hypothetical scenario linked here.]
Pertinent factors in the Roseflower Independent School District align with the Town of Greece v. Galloway, 572 US ___ (2014) and the Lee v. Weisman 505 US 577 (1977) cases. In Lee v. Weisman, Weisman sued to halt the practice of the principal inviting clergy to offer prayers of invocation and benediction at local middle school graduation ceremonies. Similarities to the Roseflower case include a representative of a school system involved in implementing overtly religious activity at a school-sponsored event and prayer being held at a school-sponsored event as part of a generally accepted practice, but not an explicit policy. I have considered the decision of the Supreme Court and the concurring and dissenting opinions in this response to Rosewood.
In Town v Galloway, Galloway sued to end the practice of prayer at local legislative sessions predominantly led by Christian clergy from among the community to the apparent exclusion of other faiths. The Roseflower case is similar in that prayer was led by a predominantly by a Christian, prayer started a meeting of the school district’s governing body in which meeting participants were fulfilling either their roles as employees or as part of their civic duty.
As Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources, I would consult the legal counsel for the school district, particularly since Dr. Cohen is willing to file suit if necessary. I would want to know if the school district or the state has any restriction on prayer in public schools and if there had been previous issues regarding prayer in school. The personnel aspects of this situation center on the power and authority commiserate with Dr. Jordan’s position as Superintendent. The fact that her subordinates are in attendance at the administrative meetings in which these prayer moments take place can be viewed as coercive. Ostensibly, those under her authority are compelled to stand in a circle, holding hands while she leads in prayer, invoking God. There is no indication that she allows for those who are not in agreement to leave nor does she hold the prayer prior to the formal start of the meetings thereby making the prayer participation voluntary. In order to avoid these prayer moments, her subordinates would have to intentionally arrive late or overtly dissent. Dissent during the meeting could be taken as disrespect not only for her authority, but for the administrative team as well.
Once I have sought legal counsel, I would speak with Dr. Jordan about Dr. Cohen’s complaint about the prayer at the administrative meetings and at the school board meetings, making her aware of the potential for legal action. I would make her aware of the likely violation of the Establishment Clause. I also would encourage Dr. Jordan to consult with the District lawyer as well. I seek to facilitate a conversation between Dr. Jordan and Dr. Cohen to give him an opportunity to personally express his views hoping to avoid a contentious relationship. In order to facilitate a mutual agreement, I would suggest that Dr. Jordan consider making the prayer optional just prior to the start time of the administrative meeting for those who want to participate. Although it is unclear whether Dr. Jordan also started the school board meeting prayer, I would suggest the meetings begin with a centering moment in which attendees can pray, meditate or pray silently if they so choose.