MESA, Arizona — Last fall, Mesa Public Schools received a letter from a national organization requesting prayers before the start of public school board meetings be removed and threatened a lawsuit if that action wasn’t taken.
Like many deliberative bodies wanting to avoid possible costly litigation, members of the governing board voted to replace formal prayer with a moment of silence.
But they also recognized that such prayers were an important part of the community and an honored and long-standing tradition at meetings.
“I didn’t want us to do completely away with them,” said board member Michelle Udall, a member of the Mesa Arizona Mountain View Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
School board member Steven Peterson, of the Mesa Arizona Maricopa Stake, agreed, and said the feedback from community members also showed support for the practice.
“While opinions varied, we generally had more support for (prayers) than against,” he said.
After taking a careful look at what they had been doing, Udall said school district officials realized that it had not been an appropriate and inclusive policy.
“Prayers had been offered on a rotating basis by members of the superintendency, and not from the community,” she said.
The five members of the school board, three of whom are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, agreed it was worth spending a little more time researching what would be appropriate and legal for the district.
Udall said she spoke to her father-in-law, David K. Udall, a lawyer and former city council member and Mormon stake president. He directed her to a group of Arizona lawyers who specialize in such matters pro bono and encouraged her to proceed.
“Prayer before meetings is part of the fabric of our society,” David Udall said. “What are we thinking letting a group of outsiders change that?
“Those who are trying to drive religion from the public square are picking us off one by one,” he said. “We need to be diligent — religion is being attacked at every level. Find good advice — and it is available — when the threat comes.”
Michelle Udall wrote an opinion piece, which was published in several local publications, stating that she believes offering prayers at the beginning of meetings, if done in an appropriate manner, can have many benefits.
It "helps set the tone of the deliberations to follow. It solemnizes the proceedings, encourages a sense of cooperation, and is a means of expressing confidence in the future and recognition for that which is worthy of appreciation in society," the mother of four wrote.
Mesa Public Schools officials, led by their own in-house legal counsel, began formulating a more appropriate policy by carefully examining cases that stood up in court.
They began to draft a policy that showed "respect for the diverse perspectives of the community," Michelle Udall said. “The opportunity to offer an invocation ought to be opened up to any and all faiths represented in the district.”
The new policy does just that.
In January, Mesa’s governing board voted unanimously in favor of the new policy that was implemented at the Feb. 11 meeting.
All leaders of religious and spiritual organizations from throughout the community have received letters inviting them to an upcoming meeting and to offer a prayer, said Helen Hollands, communications director for Mesa Public Schools.
“The invocation will be part of the pre-meeting activities,” Hollands said. That also includes a musical performance from a local school group.
Several weeks after Mesa’s vote, neighboring Gilbert Public Schools passed a similar policy, reinstating prayer before school board meetings after 14 years of holding a moment of silence.
Michelle Udall, who grew up attending Mesa schools, said another upside to the change is the "opportunity to invite members of the community who may not otherwise attend school board meetings."
“They will have the chance to learn more about what is happening in Mesa schools and how they can get involved,” she said. “Greater community involvement in schools will benefit all students.”
As far as prayers, those who do not wish to participate can refrain, she said.
“Certainly there is a need for mutual respect for those of all faiths and beliefs,” she said. “School board meetings ought to be a place where tolerant, respectful behavior is modeled and promoted.”
Jill Adair is a freelance journalist in Mesa, Arizona, and an adjunct faculty member at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.