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Ohio School Board Continues Prayers Despite Atheist Group's Complaint

Members of a northern Ohio school board say they'll resume monthly prayers before board meetings, despite challenges from an anti-religion group that says the practice violates the constitution.

The school board in Norwalk, Ohio, routinely held non-demoninational opening prayers led by clergy and laypeople from different churches and organizations, the Sandusky Register reported.

In the past, the prayers have been led by pastors from Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist and non-denominational Christian churches, as well as other organizations like the Salvation Army.

But in July, the pre-meeting prayers were put on hold after the school district received a written complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based non-profit that advocates for the separation of church and state.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has made headlines recently in other towns and cities across the U.S., challenging dozens of police departments for using the phrase "In God We Trust" on patrol vehicles, and pressuring municipal governments to remove religious-themed decorations and imagery from public property during holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah.

In the foundation's letter to the Norwalk City School District, it said it was following up on the complaints of a "concerned local resident," the Sandusky Register said. The church-state watchdog said the practice of holding a pre-meeting prayer was "coercive, embarrassing and intimidating" to people who aren't believers and do not want to participate.

After suspending the prayer for the last few months, on Nov. 28 school board members told the newspaper that they've looked into the legalities of the non-denominational prayer, and legal precedent set by court rulings dealing with similar cases.

While the Freedom From Religion Foundation has successfully pressured some municipalities and school districts to remove religious displays and abandon public prayers, the non-profit hasn't been as successful in convincing courts that those practices are illegal. Judges have dismissed cases in states like South Dakota, Michigan and Rhode Island, and the anti-religion group was unsuccessful in challenging the U.S. National Day of Prayer.

In Norwalk, district officials said they believe they'll be on stable legal ground if they take the time to carefully draft guidelines for pre-meeting prayers.

“Based on the research we’ve done, I’m fairly confident it’s constitutional,” board member Rob Ludwig said.

Lutheran Pastor Amy Little was among those who encouraged the Norwalk school board to disregard the Freedom From Religion Foundation's complaint.

"Someone is trying to rob us of our faith," Little told the Sandusky Register, "and I think that's sad."

Sources: Sandusky Register (2), Freedom From Religion Foundation / Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

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