Month: August 2011

Prayers at School Board Meetings Struck Down

A Delaware school board’s practice of reciting prayers before public board meetings is unconstitutional, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, comes at a time of renewed attention to prayers in the public square. Prayers before city council and county board meetings have come under greater legal scrutiny, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s decision to lead a prayer rally this past weekend raised concerns among civil libertarians.

Prayers before school board meetings are commonplace in the United States, though certainly not everywhere.

The 3rd Circuit case involves the 8,400-student Indian River school district in Delaware, which has had prayers at its board meetings since its founding in 1969, court papers say. In 2004, the district formalized its board meeting prayer policy, which calls for board members to rotate in leading a prayer or moment of silence to “solemnify” formal meetings. The policy says prayers may be sectarian or non-sectarian, “in the name of a Supreme Being, Jehovah, Jesus Christ, Buddha, Allah,” or any other entity.

Court papers say that in practice, prayers have almost always been Christian.

Two families challenged the board prayers as a violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition against government establishment of religion. A federal district court upheld the practice. But in its Aug. 5 decision in Doe v. Indian River School District, the 3rd Circuit court panel said the board’s policy and practices cannot be squared with the establishment clause.

The court said the key question was whether the school board’s meetings and prayers were closer to the legislative prayers upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1983 case of Marsh v. Chambers, or more like other school events in which the high court’s cases have limited school-sponsored prayers.

The court noted that students are frequently present at board meetings, including student government representatives who regularly advise the Indian River board, as well as academic and sports team members who are recognized by the board.

The 3rd Circuit concluded that the board meetings are closer to other school events, such as graduation ceremonies, in which school-sponsored prayers have been held to have a coercive effect on students.

“Regardless of whether the board is a deliberative or legislative body, we conclude that Marsh is ill-suited to this context because the entire purpose and structure of the Indian River School District revolves around public school education,” the opinion says. “The First Amendment does not require students to give up their right to participate in their educational system or be rewarded for their school-related achievements as a price for dissenting from a state-sponsored religious practice.”

The 3rd Circuit decision covers Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The court noted that one other federal appeals court has addressed prayers before school board meetings. In a 1999 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, held that prayers before board meetings in Cleveland were barred by the establishment clause.

While some courts have extended Marsh to permit prayers before city council and county board meetings, the educational emphasis of school boards distinguishes them from those other local bodies, the 3rd Circuit court said.

The court closed its opinion by quoting an observation from the Supreme Court’s 1962 decision striking down official prayer in the New York state schools, Engel v. Vitale.

“[I]t is neither sacrilegious nor antireligious to say that each separate government in this country should stay out of the business of writing or sanctioning official prayers and leave that purely religious function to the people themselves,” the high court said in that case.

Courtesy of

Campaign fights ACLU demand to let kids have porn

By Bob  Unruh

A  campaign has been launched to halt an effort by the ACLU to pressure  schools to open their Internet filtering options for children to allow sites  such as, where a woman’s naked torso is fondled by three hands;, which advertises a see-through boxer for men; and, where students would see an image of two naked men  apparently engaged in a sex act.

“It goes without saying that our nation’s public school districts should not  permit minors access to the type of sexually inappropriate internet content  described,” said a letter from the Alliance Defense Fund. “Yet this  is exactly what the ACLU is demanding by threatening to sue the district unless  it disables the LGBT filter.”

The ADF had written to officials at  the Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia about the issue.

Chara Fisher Jackson, legal director for the ACLU of Georgia, wrote Supt. J.  Alvin Wilbanks to warn him that the district’s Internet filter that blocks  “LGBT” websites “violates the First Amendment and the Equal Access Act.”

The ADF countered that school districts “shouldn’t be bullied into exposing  students to sexually explicit materials.”

David Cortman, senior counsel for ADF, said the “latest scare tactic – under  the façade of illegal censorship – is just another act of intimidation designed  to forward the ACLU’s radical sexual agenda for children.”

The letter from the ACLU to Gwinnett officials said, “Your filtering system  currently blocks access to the website for the It Gets Better Project, the  Georgia Safe Schools Coalition, Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and  Gays (‘PFLAG’), GSA Network, and the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

“None of the blocked websites contains material that is pornographic or  sexually explicit in any way,” the ACLU assured the district. “These websites  all contain ‘G-rated Content’ that is ‘[d]eemed suitable for viewers of all  ages.'”

However, the ADF found that unblocking the district’s Blue Coat filtering  system for homosexual websites would release to students “the following sexually  inappropriate websites:,, and”

“Bowing to the ACLU’s demands may result in the district violating federal  law, if it receives funding pursuant to the Children’s Internet Protection Act  (CIPA),” said the ADF. “This act prohibits libraries receiving CIPA funds from  allowing students under the age 17 to access Internet content that is ‘harmful  to minors.'”

The letter said the harmful images include those that “appeal to a prurient  interest,” depict an actual or simulated sexual act or lack “serious literary,  artistic, political, or scientific value.”

The ACLU had told Gwinnett officials they had no legitimate interest in  blocking the porn images and that its Blue Coat filtering “engages in  unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination by blocking sites that express  acceptance and tolerances toward LGBT individuals but not blocking sites that  urge LGBT persons to change their sexual orientation.”

A spokeswoman in the office of the district’s superintendent said the  district had been reviewing the dispute, but she was uncertain whether a  decision had been made on the ACLU’s demand. She did not respond to a WND  request for confirmation of the plans.

The ACLU has launched a similar campaign in many other states in which it  cites several filtering companies — including Blue Coat, M86, Fortiguard,  Websense and URL Blacklist — for preventing students from having access to such  explicit material.

The organization posted a map showing it has launched cases or is reviewing  claims in Washington, Nevada, California, Arizona, Minnesota, Wisconsin,  Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Michigan, Indiana, Tennessee, Alabama,  Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York,  Massachusetts and Maine.

Cortman told WND that the ADF is researching the companies and the issues in  those states, and is planning to send guidance to the districts regarding their  responsibilities to the children.

He said there are sound legal reasons for schools not to provide such access,  and a First Amendment case is weak.

“The district is well within its legal rights to keep the filter in place,  especially since deactivating the filter would expose students to sites with  sexually explicit content,” the ADF said.

The ACLU’s argument that the filters violate the First Amendment lacks merit  because the district has “broad authority” over what materials students may  access, the ADF said.

The ADF pointed to the ACLU’s claim that there is an “epidemic” of LGBT youth  suicides and bullying, noting not one case had been identified.

“The idea that Internet filters somehow result in student suicides is  preposterous, and the ACLU should be ashamed for making such a connection,” said  ADF Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco. “The ACLU cannot mask its attempts to turn  school computers into porn portals for children with a supposed concern for  bullying and suicides. Parents expect schools to be places where their children  will learn knowledge, information, and skills that will make them productive  members of society, not places where they can access pornography.”

Read more: Campaign fights ACLU demand to let kids have porn

Plan to Build A Mosque and Muslim Community Center Two Blocks From Ground Zero Quitely Moving Ahead

A year after controversy engulfed plans to build a Muslim community center and mosque in Lower Manhattan, the project’s developers are quietly moving ahead: In recent months they have hired a paid staff, started fund-raising drives and continued holding prayers and cultural events in their existing building two blocks from ground zero.

But they have also embraced what they call a slower, more deliberate and more realistic approach to the project, acknowledging it will take years of hard work to determine what kind of facilities Muslim and non-Muslim visitors want and need, to raise money, and to build public support.

That means it could be five years before they even try to begin any physical transformation of the property, now a bare-bones building that once housed a Burlington Coat Factory store. And the Muslim center might never become the 15-story, $100 million edifice that the developers had once envisioned, and that some opponents had labeled a “megamosque.”

When the plans were announced last year, there were angry protests from some relatives of 9/11 victims, politicians and others who said it would be insensitive to build a Muslim institution close to where Islamic radicals attacked the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. The furor was fanned by Internet-based activists who viewed Muslim influence as a threat and called the project a “victory mosque.” The developers, unprepared for the outcry, were thrown into disarray, trying to defend a plan that was still embryonic.

Sharif El-Gamal, the lead developer, who controls the property at 45-51 Park Place, has spent the past year trying to regroup. He has severed ties with the project’s original imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf. He has crisscrossed the country to attract donors, built relationships with neighborhood groups and Muslim organizations and recruited the aunt of a 9/11 victim to his advisory board — all things he says he should have done before going public last year.

“Everything was backward,” Mr. El-Gamal, 37, acknowledged in an interview on Wednesday in his Chelsea real estate office. “We’re going back to basics.”

Mr. El-Gamal said his vision remained: a Muslim-led community center modeled on the Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side, where his children learned to swim. It would be open to all, with a pool, a theater and cultural, religious and interfaith programming. And the site, which is already used for Muslim worship, would include a mosque.

He said the ultimate form of the center, called Park51, and its building would be determined after consultation with two main audiences, residents of Lower Manhattan and Muslims who live in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Mr. El-Gamal also said he would assess the community response to the events now held at Park51’s makeshift space, varying from art exhibits and yoga and Brazilian martial arts classes to Muslim holiday observances and a discussion for Muslim and non-Muslim children about bullying.

“If the community only wants four or five floors, it’s going to be four or five floors,” Mr. El-Gamal said.

One thing that is not in question, he said, is the center’s location. Legally, he is entitled to operate a religious institution there; the project required no zoning approval, though it was voluntarily presented to Manhattan’s Community Board 1, which approved it in May 2010.

Prayers have been held in the building since 2009, when Mr. El-Gamal and his partners bought it to provide prayer space for Muslims who work downtown and had worshiped for decades in two small, crowded mosques nearby.

The 10th anniversary of 9/11 this fall poses a new challenge for the center. Pamela Geller, a blogger who drove much of the opposition, has called for a protest on Sept. 11 near Park51; her Web site promotes a film, “The Ground Zero Mosque: Second Wave of the 911 Attacks.” The language employed by Ms. Geller and Robert Spencer, another blogger who writes about threats from Islam, is under new scrutiny after their views were cited by Anders Behring Breivik, who confessed to killing scores of people in Norway on July 22 because of his fears of a Muslim takeover; Ms. Geller and Mr. Spencer have denied any responsibility for Mr. Breivik’s actions.

They are not the only opponents. In the campaign for a special election to fill an open House seat serving Brooklyn and Queens, the Republican nominee, Bob Turner, is accusing his Democratic opponent, David I. Weprin, of being insufficiently hostile to the Muslim center.

Mr. El-Gamal said he was disturbed that his project had been swept up in public discussion of 9/11, which he recalls as “an attack on my city.”

“To see that you’re in the middle of causing neighbors or other human beings angst or distress or adding to their grief is not a pleasant feeling,” he said. “At the same time, we had nothing to do with those events, and those events defaced our religion.”

Park51 has not decided whether to hold a formal event on 9/11 or simply mourn and remember in private. “We want to do what is most respectful and appropriate,” said Katerina Lucas, the chief of staff. Ms. Lucas, a recent graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, is one of Park51’s five staff members.

Inside the unmarked building, the center is busy with events that showcase its multiple goals. Throughout Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that begins this week, the space will host nightly meals to break the fast, and other events. This fall, the center plans an exhibit called NYChildren Photography, by Danny Goldfield, a Brooklyn photographer who is trying to take pictures of one New York City boy or girl born in each of the world’s countries. In July, at a preview of the exhibit, a band played and several dozen visitors nibbled snacks and admired portraits of children from Japan, Guinea and Afghanistan.

And last Friday in the building, the planners held a dinner for New York Muslim groups to raise money for the mosque, which will be called PrayerSpace. Fund-raising is being done separately for the mosque and the community center, though the same people oversee both efforts; money will not be accepted from sources that Mr. El-Gamal said did not reflect “American values.” He said he was seeking to raise $7 million to $10 million to finance a “transitional phase” of both facilities.

Leaders of several Muslim community organizations, some of whom were upset last year that they were not consulted about Park51 before it became the center of national controversy, said in interviews that Mr. El-Gamal had mended fences with them.

At the same time, Mr. El-Gamal said he would no longer have an imam as the center’s public face. Personality conflicts and philosophical and tactical disagreements ended his relationship with Mr. Abdul Rauf, whose views were criticized by opponents and whom some Muslims said was out of touch with their concerns.

Mr. Abdul Rauf said last week that he had spent recent months lecturing on tolerance and American Islam and working to establish a Muslim center at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York and writing a book.