New Castle News

Wilmington

February 21, 2012

Wilmington School District: After board member complains, prayer no longer allowed

NEW CASTLE — For more than 20 years, Wilmington Area school directors have opened their meetings with prayer.

That ended last night.

“I don’t know what they will do next month,” middle school principal Ben Fennick said after the meeting.

The school board called upon Fennick for the past 20 years to offer an invocation, which followed the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of each public meeting. He said he replaced another individual, a curriculum director, who had led the invocation before him.

“I always tried to offer something high-level, non-denominational,” he said, “something that covered the spirit of cooperation that we worked toward as school officials.”

The question of prayer preceding board meetings was raised at last night’s board meeting by school director Robert Curry.

“A resident asked me to ask this,” he said. “Is our invocation illegal?”

Board solicitor Charles Mansell said the board had been advised previously that it was, “but chose to ignore it.”

This opened discussion among the nine members.

Dr. David Swerdlow, identifying himself as “the only person in the room whose family has experienced religious discrimination,” said he has chafed at the invocation since joining the board.

“I know that it is important to some board members to do the invocation and is part of the community tradition,” he said, “but I believe deeply in the separation of church and state. I feel that protects the church, synagogue and mosque — not the state.”

He said he finds public prayer “insulting, annoying and offensive” and called on board members to “not break the law.”

Swerdlow proposed a motion that board members would “not knowingly allow anything illegal to occur at board meetings.”

His motion passed 8-1 with board member Kathryn Riley opposed.

(Reporter Nancy Lowry is working on this developing story and will have complete details in Tuesday’s print edition of The News.)

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