District 65 apologizes for prayer at staff event

Evanston/Skokie School District 65 opened the year for all teachers and staff on Monday, August 22, with a first-day convocation featuring welcoming remarks from Superintendent Devon Horton, Mayor Daniel Biss, and Chair of the school board Sergio Hernandez, among others.

Spencer Nabors leaves the stage after speaking to District 65 staff during the district convocation August 22, 2022 at Quad Indoor Sports. Credit: Richard Cahan

But the district also invited the Reverend Michael Nabors of the Second Baptist Church, also president of the Evanston North Shore NAACP chapter, to provide an “invocation” as part of the program for the event, according to a press release the district said. sent to the media. members. Nabors had a problem traveling over the weekend, so he sent Minister Spencer Nabors to give the invocation for him.

“Kind and loving God, we now come to the dawn of another academic year in Evanston District 65. We are grateful for today’s gathering and for the staff who are in attendance, as well as those who cannot attend,” Spencer Nabors said in the invocation. “We now ask you to despise every employee in the district.

“We pray that you will bless every support staff in every school, bless every maintenance worker, bless every teacher’s aide and assistant, bless every teacher and faculty member, bless every principal and vice-principal, bless every District 65 administrators, assistant superintendents and the superintendent.”

Just a day after the event, however, Horton wrote an email to all staff and he said the district had received complaints from some employees who were offended by the specifically religious connotation of the invocation.

In the letter, he also wrote that the Reverend Michael Nabors, as the leader of the Evanston community, often speaks at religious and non-religious events, and that he “generally gives greetings and supplications secular and non-denominational,” according to Horton.

In prayer, Spencer Nabors also quoted ‘Harry Potter’ author JK Rowling, who has a history of making offensive comments on transgender issues. Horton apologized for the Rowling reference and said the district would take more care in the future to review any comments made to staff in advance.

“We had no intention of offering a formal prayer calling for the presence of any deity,” Horton said in his email to staff Tuesday.

“Unfortunately, the impact of this part of the program was that it felt inconsistent with the personal freedom and inclusion that D65 is committed to. I apologize for these offensive words.

Separation of Church and State

In an effort to better understand the legal consequences of a public school district, including praying at a formal event for teachers, the roundtable spoke with three constitutional law experts who teach at law schools. from Chicago.

Ultimately, because the schoolchildren weren’t present for Monday’s event, this particular situation falls into a legal gray area without much case law or precedent, the experts said.

Since the 1960s, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that any prayer or overtly religious act in a classroom with students present is unconstitutional, but the court has also held that local or state legislative bodies can legitimately open their doors. meetings with a prayer or a blessing. based on American traditions.

To complicate matters further, the current Supreme Court, which has a strong conservative majority, recently handed down several rulings that overturned decades of case law on this topic, according to Steven Schwinn, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. .

The most famous in Kennedy v. Bremerton School Districtthe court ruled in favor of a Washington high school football coach who prayed with players and coaches on the field after every game.

As a result, current constitutional law is rapidly moving towards protecting religious expression rather than preserving the separation of church and state, as noted in the Establishment Clause of the First AmendmentSchwinn and other experts told the roundtable.

“The Supreme Court has fundamentally changed its approach to these sorts of issues, and said that it will now look at history and tradition, and do so in a way that I think is likely to be centered on results,” Schwinn said.

“And what I mean by that is that there’s a particular ideological bent to this court that has a strong preference for allowing people to express their religious beliefs and, in particular, evangelical Christians.”

Five years ago, for example, if a teacher in District 65 had sued the district for calling on God in a prayer, he likely could have won that case on the grounds that the event was mandatory for teachers, thus forcing them to participate in a religious practice, according to legal experts.

But now, with the current Supreme Court favoring public expression of religion, the district would likely prevail in any lawsuit brought against it.

“The conservative majority on the court might say that if everyone can have their say, if all other points of view are represented, if all other community leaders can have their say, then that can be seen as hostility to religion to exclude only religion and only religion from a place at the table,” said Mary Anne Case, a law professor at the University of Chicago. “This is not a development that I personally favor, but I am describing it to you because it is real and clear.”

Below is the full text of Horton’s letter to District 65 staff expressing his concerns about prayer at Monday’s event:

Dear D65 staff,

I wanted to thank you for participating in yesterday’s event and we are sorry for any discomfort or confusion this has caused.

After reviewing the thoughts exchange from yesterday’s event, it was noted that some of our staff were offended. By holding an invocation, we thought it would show gratitude and appreciation. We did not intend to offer an official prayer calling for the presence of a deity. We had planned for Pastor Nabors, President of the NAACP, to give the invocation, but he was unable to attend due to difficulties with air travel. Pastor Nabors is well known in our community and generally gives secular, non-denominational greetings and invocations. We are grateful to him for being able to send Minister Spencer Nabors in his place. Finally, it occurred to us that a reference was made when invoking an author known for not supporting LGBTQ+ people. Unfortunately, the impact of this part of the program was that it did not seem consistent with the personal freedom and inclusion that D65 is committed to. I apologize for these offensive words. Going forward, we will make every effort to review any future presentations to our staff in advance.

The frame of miracles begins with Motion for Equity and as a district we need to think and operate with vulnerability. So thank you for being open to sharing your concerns in a way that honors respect, dignity, professionalism, courtesy, and humanization. As you may know from our improvement process, the MIRACLES framework has been widely used to describe the Bold Strategies D65 Framework and hard work that positively impacts our commitment to creating safe, engaging and welcoming learning environments for students and staff. Each letter of the word represents a particular aspect of educational progress, none of which is related to religion or religious expression. In fact, Evanston Skokie’s MIRACLES in Action 65: December 2021 Report to the Community was selected as the winner of the 2022 Illinois Chapter of the National School Public Relations Association Communications Contest! This is national recognition that further reinforces the importance and impact of our MIRACLES framework.

A common definition of MIRACLES is “an extremely remarkable or unusual event, thing or achievement”. This definition is our connection to the word MIRACLES. We believe this is what our teachers and staff are collectively doing for our children in District 65. There is no religious connotation intended. Thanks to those who have reached out to hold us accountable for the unintended impact of this part of our day, holding each other accountable for missteps is how we excel together. We were grateful to have the opportunity to celebrate the kick off of the school year together and to share much of the important work that has been accomplished over the summer to position us all for an outstanding school year. .

Best wishes,

Dr. Devon Horton

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