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Manatee board to weigh court views on prayer


MANATEE COUNTY -- Members of the Manatee County School Board say they never meant to offend anyone by saying the Lord's Prayer at the start of their meetings.

All five of the board members are Christians who say the prayer was how they were taught to talk to God.

They have a hard time imagining how the words that speak of forgiveness could offend anyone.

Many county residents feel the same way. About 50 of them packed the board chambers Monday to urge the board not to give up its prayer.

Others have said the prayer seems out of place in a government meeting, but they won't be lining up to tell School Board members. They said they know they're in the minority, and some said they were afraid of what would happen if they came forward.

Scholars say that's exactly why the founders who wrote the Constitution framed it the way they did. Too often, those with minority opinions were losing their freedoms.

In England, those who weren't followers of the Church of England were persecuted. Puritans seeking the freedom to pray as they saw fit came to the new world. They weren't the only ones.

William Penn and his fellow Quakers founded Pennsylvania. English Catholics, led by Cecil Calvert, founded Maryland. And in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, colonists from Europe sought greater religious freedom as well as economic opportunity.

As the Manatee County School Board ponders whether reciting a particular prayer is worth fighting for in court, legal experts said they should not be swayed by the outcry of the majority.

"The law protects people who are in the minority. The law is there to protect people who don't have the power to protect themselves," said Tommy Roebig, a civil rights lawyer from Palm Harbor.

The School Board began discussing dropping the prayer it has been saying for 20 years after a Jewish parent complained that it was exclusive and illegal.

In May, Steven Rosenauer and his son, Joshua, were invited to a School Board meeting to recognize the members of Haile Middle School's technology team. After the meeting, Rosenauer wrote the board asking it to stop saying the prayer.

When it didn't, Rosenauer, with the backing of the civil rights group People for the American Way, threatened to sue.

Board members are holding a workshop later this month to review court cases on the issue and discuss whether to fight Rosenauer.

Board Member Harry Kinnan said he wants to know the specifics of the cases that have been won and lost before he makes a decision, even though he knows what his heart tells him.

"This has been part of the fabric of the School Board of Manatee County for many years. I see no reason to discontinue that," he said.

Board members are talking with a couple of Christian groups that could take on their case for free. But the district's lawyer, Mark Barnebey, has advised the board that the case could be difficult to win.

If the board were to lose, a judge could require the district to pay its opponent's legal fees.

Judith Schaeffer, of the People for the American Way, said she's still hoping to avoid a court battle.

"One shouldn't have to have a lawsuit over this," she said. "This is the Golden Rule."

For those who are willing to speak out, this case is precisely about that rule.

"Perhaps 20 years ago when they began saying the Lord's Prayer it was a different situation. People that I have talked to, friends of mine, cannot believe this is going on in 2003," said Selma Zislis of Bradenton, a 22-year county resident.

"Even 20 years ago if there were five Jewish people here, that wasn't appropriate. This is a very backward, narrow position that the board members are taking, and I am appalled."

Several others interviewed for this story also objected to the prayer, but didn't want to be named.

Barbara Aiello, rabbi of the Temple Beth El in Bradenton, said she'd like to see the board keep praying, but with a prayer that represents people of all faiths.

"I feel this is not only a Jewish issue," she said. "It touches all of us as minority faiths. It's very important that all of us feel included when our representatives gather to do the people's work."

Roebig, the lawyer, said board members should conduct a simple test to see whether they should keep saying the Lord's Prayer. Instead of the Lord's Prayer, he said the board should substitute a speech that goes against everything they personally believe.

"What if those board members stood up together before one of their governmental meetings and they all said, 'We denounce Christ. We denounce Christianity as a bogus faith. We denounce all the teachings of the Bible, and now we'll begin our meeting.' There would be a riot in that room. From a legal perspective, is there any difference?"

Today, it's hard for many Christians to think of what it would be like to live where their views aren't accepted by the majority.

Manatee County is so overwhelmingly Christian that when some people talk of experimenting with religion, it likely means visiting another Christian church.

"It seemed like a foreign country to me," is how Kaye Oakley, a Southern Baptist described attending Mass in a Catholic church.

But there are those who are in true minority religions in the county. About 4 percent of the county's 250,000 residents are Jewish, according to the American Data Religion Archives, which tracks religious preferences around the country. There are others who consider themselves culturally Jewish but do not attend temple.

The Baha'i Faith, which recognizes all other religions as part of its religion, has fewer than 40 members living in the county, members said.

There's also an active Unitarian Universalist community, and some residents attend a mosque in Sarasota.

Even so, Oakley, a Southeast High School teacher and member of the county's Christian Education Organization, said the board should keep saying its prayer even if it means a court battle.

"The United States is probably the only place where the minority view is followed. In every other country or every other heritage (or) culture, the majority culture or religion is held," she said. "Here we go along fine until one person objects. We have to quit because one person is offended."

Oakley says that's wrong.

"I am proud of School Board members for the stance they are working on taking. One person or two persons who don't even have to attend should not tell them how they can pray," she said. "It's not right and it's not fair."

Last modified: August 03. 2003 12:00AM

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