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Palm Coast Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019 6 months ago

School Board decides against invocations before meetings

Board members expressed concerns that the process could devolve into a 'circus' that would cause disruptions and cost staff time.
by: Jonathan Simmons News Editor

Concerned that adding a regular invocation before its board meetings would lead to disruptions and to additional work for district staff, School Board members opted during a workshop Nov. 19 not to make invocations a feature of board meetings in the future. 

"I’ve been struggling with this, because I have a very deep faith, but I also don’t want to put the district where we invite a circus into town, into our chambers."

— COLLEEN CONKLIN, Flagler County School Board memmber

School Board member Janet McDonald had raised the issue in August by inviting the pastor of the Flagler Beach United Methodist Church, Jeanine Clontz, to speak at the beginning of a board meeting.

Clontz had offered an invocation, then spoken about her church, at the beginning of the meeting — a move that surprised McDonald's fellow board members, who requested a board discussion of the potential procedure change.

In previous workshops on the issue, the board has been divided, with McDonald and board member Maria Barbosa speaking in favor of the invocations, board member Colleen Conklin open to the possibility but expressing some reservations, and board members Andy Dance and Trevor Tucker in opposition.

Dance said that if the purpose was to recognize the good works of local churches, as McDonald had said, that could be done during the board meetings’ existing “Spotlight” feature.

By a workshop Nov. 19, Conklin had decided against invocations. 

"I’ve done a lot of research, I’ve watched a lot of meetings — school board meetings, county commission meetings — where they do a prayer before the meetings," Conklin said. "And almost every single one of them eventually spirals down into a complete circus show. Literally, Google it and watch. … It turns into Satanist members hailing Satan to 'Come down over this district.' It was a number of school districts that it just spiraled down into one of the worst kind of shows that you would ever want; I would not sit through that kind of a thing. … I’ve been struggling with this, because I have a very deep faith, but I also don’t want to put the district where we invite a circus into town, into our chambers."

When government bodies allow for people to offer invocations, they generally must open up the process broadly to people who'd like to offer one, in order to avoid favoring some religious viewpoints over others. Turning someone down invites lawsuits and accusations of religious discrimination. Hence, the Satanist invocations.

Some government bodies have gotten around that issue by only allowing representatives of local religious organizations to offer invocations.

"I think that just leads to a whole lot of work for staff," Tucker said. "That could be a circus with a whole bunch of people coming to our meetings, all about a topic that does not impact our students immediately."

Barbosa was also concerned about the potential for a circus. 

Conklin proposed some potential compromises: School Board members could meet 15 minutes before the meetings actually begin, she suggested, and have an invocation then, led by a local clergy member. 

Or they could have students offer a "thought of the day," which would not be explicitly religious, at the start of each board meeting — an option Barbosa said she was interested in, because it would give students an opportunity to develop leadership skills. 

McDonald — who said it had only been her intention to highlight the way churches, and potentially other local organizations, support students — acknowledged the other board members' contributions to the discussion and urged them to bring their ideas to the board's upcoming retreat in December.

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