by Ethan Tong • 3 min read
The Suffolk City School Board in Virginia recently prevented Ms. Angela Kilgore from using part of her allotted public comment time to say a brief prayer for the school system. When she attempted to pray, the Chairman of the Board, Tyron Riddick, interrupted her and said, “We can’t do that … No, ma’am … It’s not permitted at this time.”
He went on to suggest that it would be unconstitutional to allow praying during the public comment period because someone might be offended. When some attendees began reciting the Lord’s Prayer in response, Riddick ordered security officers to clear everyone out of the room, stating “conduct unbecoming will not be tolerated.”
Watch the exchange below. Ms. Kilgore begins her comments at the 3:35:40 mark:
First Liberty and our friends at Founding Freedoms Law Center recently sent a letter to the school board explaining why a decision to prohibit religious expression, including prayer, is unconstitutional: “The Constitution prohibits the government from excluding religious expression from a public forum; it certainly does not require such censorship.”
In his statement, Chairman Riddick expressed worries that allowing someone to pray would appear to be a school board endorsement of prayer. But, as our letter points out, the Supreme Court ruled out endorsement concerns in our landmark victory in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District.
That ruling emphasized that suppressing religious expression out of concern that others may be offended is not constitutional. We make it clear in our letter that “private citizens speaking during public comment periods speak on their own behalf, not on behalf of the government.” No attendee would believe the school board is “agreeing with” a person’s complaint or grievance, or “endorsing” a private citizen’s prayer.
Many Supreme Court decisions, including Kennedy, explain that government must treat religious viewpoints with equal respect to secular viewpoints. If the school board permits secular statements during public comment time, then it cannot ban religious statements. The Supreme Court made clear:
“Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic. Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a personal religious observance, based on a mistaken view that it has a duty to suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.”
We asked the Board to issue a statement clarifying that it will not discriminate against religious expression during public comment time. Our attorneys also extended our help and offered to work with the school board to help formulate a policy that fully complies with the First Amendment. We’re hopeful the Suffolk Board will do what’s right, follow the law and respect the rights of religious Americans.