I am one member of a five person board. The opinions I express on this forum are mine only, and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Escambia County Staff, Administrators, Employees, or anyone else associated with Escambia County Florida. I am interested in establishing this blog as a means of additional transparency to the public, outreach to the community, and information dissemination to all who choose to look. Feedback is welcome, but because public participation is equally encouraged, appropriate language and decorum is mandatory.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Free Exercise Clause and the Freedom OF Religion

After performing a chant on a carpet in front of the Board's Dais,  David Suhor of Pensacola non-verbally protests the  opening  Christian Prayer of the Escambia County School Board by turning his back on the Board and holding a sign that reads Matthew 6: 5-8  6-16-2015
This past Tuesday night, I had the distinct honor and privilege of leading the opening prayer for the benefit of the assembled legislative body--the school board--- at our regular monthly meeting. 

Our board has a standing tradition of rotating the duty of the opening prayer/pledge of allegiance among the five board members.

Over the last year or so, we have been berated by an individual that has accused us of being non-inclusive in our prayers.  This individual has also inaccurately accused us of violating the law with our opening prayer practice.

The board has discussed this issue on several occasions and the consensus is that we stick with the current practice of rotating the 

duty of either bringing the opening prayer or bringing a guest to do so.

Importantly—our attorney Donna Waters stated publicly at open meetings that our current practice comports with the law and also with recent Supreme Court rulings; however, she does not guarantee that we will not invite litigation if we continue our opening prayer practice as we have been doing.

Furthermore, in an abundance of caution, she has recommended that the best way to insulate the board from litigation on this subject would be to have the board transition to a “moment of silence.”

The board heard what our attorney stated and still affirmed the intention to have individual board members make the determination about what sort of prayer we open our meetings with and which, if any, guests to invite.  I agree with this opinion.

Over the last 12 months we have been very inclusive—more so than ever before!  We have had poetry about geese instead of a prayer, we have had a moment of silence on multiple occasions instead of prayers, we have had a Jewish Rabbi lead our prayer, and we have also had Christian prayer.  We have been inclusive; we have demonstrated tolerance and compliance with Greece V. Galloway and Marsh V. Chambers, as well as with the U. S. Constitution.

The First Amendment of the Constitution contains the free exercise clause, which precludes the government from abridging the right of a citizen to practice the free exercise of his religious belief--  Any citizen, all citizens!  

In our nation, we have the freedom “of” religion, not a freedom “from” religion.  We also have the freedom of speech--even (especially) political speech.

Thank God we have these freedoms!

Nowhere in the constitution is there any mention of a “wall of separation of church and state.”

Activists and others that hate religion in general and Christians and Jews in particular-- claim there is a “freedom from religion.” They ignore the actual Constitution and simply hang on one badly faulted interpretation of a friendly letter to a Baptist group by an aging President as the basis for this incorrect belief.

Why do we allow a militant, vocal, yet minuscule minority opinion to sway us so often in this nation on this issue?  Why?


Anonymous said...

You've had ONE Rabbi pray - "for diversity and inclusiveness". That's literally tokenism defined. EVERY other prayer has been Christian. The good Rabbi had no idea why he was invited. IF so, he would not have accepted, knowing you reject other minority religions (like mine) routinely. Ask him again and see!! Hand-picking a rabbi (only after immense pressure) and rejecting religions you don't agree with is not inclusion. It's fakeness and pandering. It's choosing a related religion over ones you see as heretical. It's religious discrimination and it's not your job. It's illegal and will get the school board sued. It's why your attorney said "you NEED to go to a moment of silence". It's past time you make an agenda change to end such disrespect of our Constitution.

Fact is, leading ANY PRAYER at SB meetings breaks policy and you know it!! From the Student Handbook: "No person and no employee or agent of the District shall coerce, advocate, or encourage in any way whatsoever prayer or any other religious activity by students". Students are always present. YOU, Mr Boone and Mrs Moultrie clearly break that rule on your turns. HOW CAN YOU DENY THAT? Leading the prayer yourself (while others are waiting) is so selfish and arrogant. Even the handbook prescribes a moment of silence, so everyone can pray or not, as they wish. You ignore that in favor or Bible-based prayer alone. At least Mrs Hightower and Mr Slayton know that following your own rules is wise. They recently chose moments of silence, for the first time ever! Good on them. Now that needs to become board policy. Lead by example. Your rules apply to you too.

What's worse, you break Christ's own command, from Matthew 6:5-6: "And when you pray, do not be like the HYPOCRITES, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your closet, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." HOW ARE YOU OBEYING THAT? Is is so unclear? Or do you cherry pick pules from the Bible like you do from the student handbook? It looks like you do.

The problem is not praying. Pray all you want (on your own) before the meeting. The problem is using the school apparatus to push prayer on the audience, asking us to participate. That is illegal and should never happen in a school setting. Accepting only certain kinds of prayer offers exacerbates the problem. It's a government meeting, NOT CHURCH!! Our government must be neutral on issues of religion. not biased disproportionately. You are taking sides and pushing your limited (and frankly ridiculous) creed onto the agenda. Do you really expect supernatural intervention? I expect your motivation is pandering and self-righteous evangelism, but only you know.

This would never be tolerated in schools, so why are our school leaders pushing it? And why are you denying others the right to participate equally and without discrimination? I could go on, but you are blind and deaf, unable to perceive life from the POV of a non-Christian. It's simple confirmation bias.

I DARE YOU to answer my questions directly. Here they are again:
1) How are you not breaking school handbook policy?
2) How are you not disobeying Christ's command from Matthew 6:5-6?
3) Why can't you just have an inclusive moment of silence (on the agenda as such) instead?
4) How is seeking out a rabbi to pray, but rejecting offers-in-hand from Humanists and Pagans not discrimination?
5) Why won't the board move toward a moment of silence WITHOUT BEING SUED?

This last part is especially troublesome, knowing you will lose and cost our school system money better spent otherwise. Every other school board facing this issue has lost in court or backed down first. An ounce of prevention could prevent that.

David Suhor

Jeff Bergosh said...

Dave-you are always coming across as being so angry and agitated. I really don't know what to make of that other than to surmise that nothing will ever be good enough for you, to satisfy you, unless and until we all bow down to you, genuflecting before you as if you are some royalty from Game of Thrones. Unless you are totally, completely detached from reality Dave, you cannot help to have noticed that two times out of the last four meetings, the Board (Hightower, slayton) have had a moment of silence at the beginning of the meeting instead of offering a prayer. Here is an arithmetic lesson for you Dave--that's 50% of the last four meetings! We ARE BEING INCLUSIVE AND DIVERSE DAVE! Dave, the SB rule you quote is taken out of context, as is your badly flawed interpretation of the Greece v Galloway and Marsh v Chambers rulings and the first amendment of the Constitution. You are not Perry Mason, you are not a lawyer and your interpretation of what we are doing is incorrect. You are wrong. In this nation all citizens have the freedom OF Religion, guaranteed by the free exercise clause. You have heard our attorney's opinion, and you have heard the board deliberate this issue. We are continuing our recent practice of being more inclusive but maintaining the board's rotation of the pre-meeting prayer. We have become more diverse and we have become more inclusive--and this is not changing Dave. But that does not mean we will not ever have Christian prayer before our meetings--the recent SCOTUS rulings affirm the legality of this practice before the meetings of legislative bodies.

Anonymous said...


You don't know me. I only angry when the situation calls for it - like this one. You DO know that you break your own rules (school handbook and Matthew 6:5-6). You cannot explain how comply with both, so you say "out of context". How so? On both counts?

True inclusion does not mean you bring in ONE religion very close to your own, but reject all others asking to participate. It does not mean a moment of silence is brought 40% of the time and only by some two SB members. True inclusion means you welcome everyone, regardless of their religion, equally and without reservation. It means there is no religious test EVER (like "are you Christian?" as you asked me). Anything short of equal treatment, regardless of belief, is discrimination. You cannot tolerate true inclusion - accepting Muslims, Pagans, Humanists, atheists, Scientologist, ANYONE. That's why it's better to drop the prayers altogether.

When ALL meetings begin with a moment of silence, I'll know you are not favoring religion (specifically or generally), nor trying to push your own god into school functions. When non-believers can attend school board functions without being subjected to religious mumbo-jumbo and superstition, I'll know my job is done. Right now, that's not happening., so I press on. Meanwhile, the SB is inviting a lawsuit over an issue you are clearly wrong on.

In some cases (not school boards), prayer at legislative meetings is allowed under Galloway. Even then, SCOTUS made it clear that there can be no discrimination. Equal and fair access is the rule. As long as you choose the prayer-givers yourself, you can't be fair. It's in your nature to favor those beliefs you like and reject those you don't. I am the same way. So your attorney advised a moment of silence. What's wrong with that policy?

Look at it this way. Would you be willing to sit through a Muslim prayer at almost every school board meeting? No. So why should non-Christians endure your one-sided worship and calls for supernatural guidance from your god? They shouldn't. Golden rule Jeff. GOLDEN RULE!

I'll remind you that 20+% of Escambia population claims 'none' as their religion. By another survey, 50% of Americans don't even pray once a week. Yet we get a prayer meeting whenever our elected boards meet to do their jobs. That's wrong. Until I started speaking out, the Nones were ignored and subjected to Christian-only prayer at ALL ECSB meetings. These folks are afraid to speak up because they are there to ask for some consideration. In short, they don't want to rock the boat for fear they will be thrown over. After EVERY meeting, someone has thanked me for saying what they thought. I see them standing (eyes open, literally and metaphorically) while you pray over them. They ask me why reps like yourself pray at meetings. I can only tell them that you are pandering to your base, injecting your religion out of fear or feelings of inadequacy. Why else would you mix church and state?

Once again, I DARE YOU to justify your breaking the school handbook rule AND Matthew 6:5-6. You cannot because (according to Jesus) that's not what hypocrites do.

Long story short, the best solution is one from the student handbook - a moment of silence at EVERY school board meeting - where students are ALWAYS present. If you want to pray on your own, feel free to do so before the meeting and without using school facilities or meeting time. I will do the same.

Respectlessly, David

Jeff Bergosh said...

Dave--invariably there will be opportunities in the future at meetings for you to participate in a moment of silence so that you can perform whatever sort of prayer you would like to make in silence to yourself. The board has been inclusive, we have had a variety of prayers and/or moments of silence that allow opportunities for everyone to pray in his/her own way. You are wrong about the legality of the way we conduct our meetings, your assessment of our supposed illegal conduct is flawed. Again--you are not a lawyer, you don not have an accurate understanding of the law. Don't try to force your naive and flawed interpretation of the law down our throats--it becomes a tired refrain. Relax a bit-- Try not to be so vitriolic in your condemnation of what we are trying to do in managing our meeting. Try to enjoy the weekend, catch a ballgame or go to the beach--relax a little why don't you? Try not to fixate on the school board, we are doing the right thing with respect to making our meetings more inclusive for everyone.