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HOUSTON – After more than two months of study and deliberation the Houston Board of Trustees has voted to establish guidelines for prayer and religious activities at school.

Trustees voted 4-0 to establish the rules and regulations under a policy heading of “student religious liberties,” at their Oct. 15 meeting. The motion was made by Trustee Marvin Beard seconded by Trustee Daniel Heeringa and supported by Trustee Thomas Howell and Board President Bart Munlin. Trustee Carol Byrne was absent from the meeting.

The only discussion on the issue came from Heeringa who attended a school training session recently that discouraged using the words “Let us pray,” before offering a public prayer at a school-sponsored event.

“We were told this is invoking our will on someone else and probably shouldn't be allowed,” said Heeringa. “If you just get up and pray – that's Ok – but to say 'Let us pray,' might get a district in trouble.”

Heeringa, who is pastor at First Baptist Church Houston, said he didn't want to confuse the issue before the board but he was concerned with the erosion of religious liberties and exactly what was and wasn't allowed.

School Board Attorney Jimmy Hood said this policy will not keep the district from being sued but it will show the court the district was seeking to follow state law.

“We've got insurance, but insurance does not cover you if you violate the law,” said Hood. “The danger you have is if someone says you have violated their religious liberties and you end up in court. That could be costly.”

The new policy says students have the right to pray under certain circumstances and those chosen to pray must be approved by the district and follow district guidelines in wording their prayer.

The board held their first reading of the new policy that would allow prayer in school and at school sponsored events Aug. 12. That reading was the first of three required public readings that culminated with the adoption of a formal policy on how prayers will be conducted at the board's Oct. 15 meeting

The Mississippi Legislature established a law and Gov. Phil Bryant signed it last spring that requires school districts to have a policy on school prayer. The Legislature had earlier approved setting up a framework for public prayer.

The prayer policy will require the district to develop a list of students “in leadership roles,” then randomly pick a student from that list and ask them if they want to lead the prayer at the next public event. The policy also requires the district to then read a disclaimer saying it in no way endorses or prohibits religious expression. The policy also allows prayers from different religions.

Hood said the state's policy was poorly written.

“I don't believe you can follow it as it is written,” said Hood. “And if you don't follow it somebody will sue you. This is typical of the laws written by the Legislature year after year.”

Houston suspended public prayer over the public address system this fall. The district did allow students and parents to pray prior to all home football games.

Several public schools in this area are continuing to allow public prayer over loudspeakers prior to football games.

Hood said policy would not stop anyone wanting to stop prayer at Houston schools from suing the district.

“That little piece of paper is not going to stop a lawsuit,” said Hood. “Like I said earlier, this policy will be difficult to follow and if you don't follow it you will be sued.”

The Houston School Board policy is listed as IGAA – Student Religious Liberties and, as with all school policy, is public record and free to the public.

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