Parents Sue Manatee County School Board To Stop Board’s Unconstitutional Practice of Beginning Meetings With Sectarian Prayer

After months of patient attempts to persuade the Manatee County School Board to cease its unconstitutional practice of beginning its meetings with sectarian prayer, parents Steven and Carol Rosenauer of Bradenton today filed suit in U.S. District Court asking the court to end the Board’s impermissible practice.

The Rosenauers first raised their objections to this practice in May 2003, when they and their son were invited to a school board meeting so that their son could be honored for his academic achievements. The Rosenauers were shocked when the Board Chair began the Board meeting by asking everyone to stand for a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. The Rosenauers, members of the Jewish faith, were made to feel like outsiders in their own community. That evening, Mr. Rosenauer wrote to the Board to object to the recitation of Christian prayer by the Board. The Board never responded to Mr. Rosenauer’s letter, and continued to recite the Lord’s Prayer to begin its meetings.

During the next several months, lawyers for the Rosenauers sent letters to the Board explaining that its practice endorsed religion generally and Christianity specifically, in violation of the constitutional requirement that the Board must remain neutral toward religion. In August 2003, the Board adopted guidelines calling for its meetings to begin with a nonsectarian “invocation,” but it has repeatedly violated those guidelines by continuing to start meetings with Christian prayer.

“We have tried in good faith for more than six months to resolve this issue without resorting to a lawsuit,” said Steven Rosenauer. “It is very unfortunate that school board members have not recognized that simple respect for religious diversity and for families like ours could have ended this dispute long ago. My wife and I strongly object to the message that the Board is sending to our children, and to other children in the community who don’t share the Board’s religious beliefs, that they are somehow second-class citizens.”

The Rosenauers are represented by Thomas R. Julin, D. Patricia Wallace, and Benjamin Wolkov of the Miami office of Hunton & Williams, and by Elliot M. Mincberg and Judith E. Schaeffer of People For the American Way Foundation, a national civil liberties organization that advocates on behalf of religious liberty and separation of church and state.

“Our request to the court is simple,” said Julin. “We want the court to make it clear that school board members are not exempt from the Constitution, and that they may not use their public office or the Board’s meetings to promote religion.”

“The Manatee County public school system exists to educate all of the county’s children,” said People For the American Way Foundation V.P. and Legal Director Elliot Mincberg. “The School Board should be a force for unity, not discord. It is extremely unfortunate that school board members are engaged in a practice that sends an exclusionary message to many students, parents, and other members of the community. The Board should be setting an example for students to respect the Constitution, not violate it.”

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