A usually mild Polk County School Board meeting sparked controversy last month when two Atheist of Florida members interrupted and protested a prayer invocation, leading to an arrest.
The protesters, John Kieffer and EllenBeth Wachs, considered their display entirely within their First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
Since the prayer was not on the public agenda, they weren’t necessarily interrupting the school board meeting and were simply voicing their opinions, which should have been within their legal rights as much as the people who were praying.
The school board incorrectly suggested otherwise, stating that the protest was out of place and prevented the beginning of the meeting. They also said the prayer wasn’t inappropriate because it took place before the meeting, making the protesters’ church vs. state debate inconsequential.
The protest has raised deeper questions, prompting many of the Polk County School Board members to push for adding prayer back to the public agenda.
According to The Polk County Democrat, School Board member Frank O’Reilly said he and other school board members want prayer returned to the agenda.
Some members of the community seem to agree with O’Reilly. According to The Democrat, community member Tabitha Hunt said at the meeting, “As Christians, we need to be more aggressive and less tolerant,” in reference to the protesters.
It’s necessary to consider that it may be more hassle than it’s is worth to add prayer back to the public agenda, since it is a clear-cut violation of the government’s responsibility to not endorse one particular religion.
Prayer’s current absence from the public agenda allows all parties the right to make their points heard without being blamed for interrupting governmental operations.
Those who want to partake in the invocation have ample opportunity, and those choosing not to partake wouldn’t be offended at the meetings.
The separation of church and state will remain intact.
Conversely, by forcing prayer onto the public agenda, a line may be crossed in respecting differing religions and beliefs.
For a public system such as the Polk County School Board, it would seem a diplomatic compromise that the prayer remains an option for those who choose to participate, yet this should not infringe on the rights of those who do not choose to take part in the act.
Tara Petzoldt is a sophomore majoring in mass communications.