Wood BOE replaces prayer with moment of silence

Wood County Board of Education President Rick Olcott announced Tuesday the board would replace its traditional pre-meeting prayer with a moment of silence as part of a plan to streamline its agendas and meetings. (Photo by Michael Erb)

PARKERSBURG — Wood County Board of Education President Rick Olcott announced Tuesday the board would replace its traditional pre-meeting prayer with a moment of silence.

The announcement came before the start of Tuesday evening’s board meeting.

“We’ve always had an optional part of our agenda, really at the discretion of the president, whether we open with prayer or not,” Olcott said. “It really isn’t a part of the formal agenda. We shift that focus a little bit going into the future. We’re going to start 2019 with a moment of silence.”

Prayer at public meetings has been a contested topic in recent months. In August, attorneys representing Parkersburg residents Daryl Cobranchi and Eric Engle and the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation have sought an injunction against Parkersburg City Council to prevent members from reciting the Lord’s Prayer at the start of city council meetings, saying it violates freedom of speech and excludes people of different views from the political process. The city has maintained the prayer comes before the official start of the meeting and does not violate the Constitution or the First Amendment.

In November, the Freedom from Religion Foundation contacted Wood County Schools arguing administrators have allowed teachers and outside adults to facilitate religious instruction during the instructional day in elementary schools. Wood County Schools Superintendent Will Hosaflook said by state and federal law Bible and prayer clubs are allowed as long as they are not school-sanctioned and are student-driven. A new policy concerning non-curricular clubs was introduced and is on public comment, but some adults say schools have since forced Bible clubs to stop meeting or have made it impossible for the clubs to exist.

Olcott did not reference either situation Tuesday, but instead said the move to a moment of silence was part of an attempt by the board to streamline its agendas and meetings. Olcott also said he does not believe the board’s past practice of holding a prayer prior to the Pledge of Allegiance violated any laws or anyone’s rights.

“When we did pray, it was always for the board and in a neutral way,” he said.

But Olcott said he feels the moment of silence better represents what the board intends.

“We do that specifically so that people have liberty to choose to use that time how they want, whether they would like to pray, whether you would just need 30 seconds of a detox from your crazy day you’ve just had, or if you want to take a short nap, whatever you’d like to do,” he said.

“Part of our role as a school system is to maintain opportunity, but also neutrality.”

At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, board member Justin Raber, who is an attorney, said he believes the board did not need to change to a moment of silence.

“It’s my opinion at this point that this board can still move forward with that prayer,” he said. “We do it before this meeting is called to order, and it is for the five (board members) and Mr. Hosaflook.”

Raber said the courts have already ruled in favor of allowing prayer at government meetings, especially if the prayer is directed at public officials rather than the meeting audience.

“They are completely constitutional,” he said.

The board placed policy 1120.2 – Rules and Regulations Governing the WCBOE and the Rules Governing the Conducting of Board Meetings on a 30-day public comment period. The revised policy omits an optional prayer from the board’s listed agenda.

The policy can be reviewed online at http://woodcountyschoolswv.com/District/6438-Policy-Manual.html under the link “Policies Currently Under Consideration or Review.” The Wood County Club Policy also can be viewed on that page. Public comments for policies under review can be submitted at kgates@woodcountyschoolswv.net.