BY LISA POST
Dustin Turner, a St. Marys High School teacher and pastor of Middlebourne United Christian Fellowship, spoke at Monday night's regularly scheduled Tyler County Board of Education meeting to request the board consider instituting spoken prayer as part of the their regular agenda. Members of his congregation also attended in support of the proposal but did not speak to the board.
"My name is Dustin Turner. I am a father of three children in the Tyler County school system and three more to come in the near future," he commented. "In opening, I would like to emphasize the importance of prayer to our nation's leaders."
Turner began his argument for spoken prayer by describing the Congressional Prayer Room in Washington, D.C. - a place which is provided to individual Representatives and Senators to seek "divine" guidance in both public affairs and in their personal lives. (The prayer room was established in 1954.)
Turner noted that a stained glass window with George Washington kneeling in prayer is a focal point in the room. The words "Preserve me, O God, for in thee do I put my trust," is also part of the window's adornment. (Psalm 16:1)
"The Tyler County Board of Education may have no prayer room, no stained glass window, and no portrait of a kneeling father of our nation, but the board can still open its meetings in prayer," said Turner.
Turner asserted that "legislative prayer" was legal and constitutional. "The United States Supreme Court established the constitutionality of legislative prayer in its ruling on Marsh versus Chambers," said Turner. The court case was filed in the state of Nebraska in 1983 by a state senator (Ernie Chambers).
Turner then quoted from a 1952 Supreme Court case (Zorach v. Clauson) in which Justice Douglass wrote in his opinion, "we are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being." (The case cited concerned students who were allowed to leave during school hours for purposes of religious instruction or practice while requiring others to stay in school). The court ruled the practice did not violate the First Amendment.
Turner admitted there was some confusion surrounding the legality of legislative prayer. Citing the case of Doe versus Indian River School District, he pointed out that the Third Court of Appeals ruled that prayer held at school district meetings violated the First Amendment.
Another case cited was Simpson versus Chesterfield, which contended that the prayers in dispute which were held at town council meetings were "only for the benefit of the Council members." The court upheld the right of town council to conduct the prayers, noting in part, "when members of a governmental body participate in a prayer for themselves and do not impose it or prescribe it for the people, the religious freedoms secured to the people by the First Amendment are not directly implicated."
Turner noted that legislative prayer was in practice in West Virginia, in both the Senate and House of Representatives, where an invocation is given at the start of session. He also noted the preamble to the West Virginia Constitution contains the statement "since through Divine Providence we enjoy the blessings of ... liberty, we the people of West Virginia, ...reaffirm our faith in and constant reliance upon God...." Turner informed the board he and his SMHS senior civics students will travel to Charleston on Jan. 17 to lead the opening prayer in the Senate.
"I was asked by Senator Donna Boley to lead the opening prayer and it will be my honor to do so," he said.
Turner also asserted that an informal poll taken by Tyler Star News (www.tylerstarnews.com) supported his request, saying "the majority of the people in the county support this."
"The people of Tyler County have spoken clearly in this matter and given their overwhelming support for the type of prayer I propose to you tonight," said Tuner, continuing, "In a recent poll, the Tyler Star News posed the question to residents of Tyler County, "Would you be supportive of an opening prayer at the start of Tyler County Board of Education meetings?" To that question, 80% of the respondents said yes. This high percentage is enough enact federal legislation over the veto of a US President."
Turner concluded his presentation to the board, stating, "The questions before the Board tonight are these. Will you establish the national and state tradition of legislative prayer? Will you listen to the witness of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals which ruled that clergy-led prayer is constitutional in school board meetings?"
"Will you exercise the authority given to you by the Supreme Court in Marsh and begin legislative prayer in this public body? Will you veto the will of 80 percent of the citizens of Tyler County? Most importantly, will you hear the voice of God tonight?" asked Turner. "Thank you for your time and may God guide your decision."
Superintendent of Robin Daquilante asked Turner, "Is there a problem with us conducting silent prayer?" (Every board of education meeting is currently opened with a moment of silence, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance).
"It has to be open prayer," asserted Turner. "It's consistent with the nation's opinion."
"Have you spoken to other pastors?" asked Board Member Larry Thomas.
Turner said other area pastors were "very open" to the idea.
Superintendent Daquilante and the board thanked Turner for his comments. "We will take the matter under consideration," said board President Linda Hoover. "The board will research the subject and speak to our legal representative. The matter will then be placed on the agenda and a decision will be made."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Those who voted on the TSN website poll supported an opening prayer 80 per cent to 20 per cent: however, the poll was informal and does not establish hard data as to the percentage of Tyler County citizens who are pro or con to holding legislative prayer at board meetings. Three comments are posted on the TSN website. To read the comments posted, go to tylerstarnews.com and view the online poll. TSN Facebook ONLINE POLL: (Would you be supportive of an opening prayer at the start of Tyler County Board of Education meetings?) received 18 "likes" and seven comments. (The comments can be viewed on the Tyler Star News Facebook page.)