Mahomet-Seymour school board compromise on prayer OK'd

Mahomet-Seymour school board compromise on prayer OK'd

MAHOMET – The Mahomet-Seymour school board on Monday adopted a compromise that retains the controversial board prayer, but moves it off the agenda and out of the board room.

"This, in my mind, meets the need that I see personally for us having prayer in this school and standing for that, and at the same time removes the legal risk and financial exposure that each of us has," school board President Mark Gerst said.

The compromise on the issue was approved with a 6-1 vote.

Gerst proposed the compromise, which he refers to as "15 minutes and 50 feet." It allows board members and others to meet for prayer before the meeting but in another room.

The prayer controversy surfaced in March, when an unnamed person threatened a lawsuit over the long-standing tradition of opening board meetings with a prayer. The threat appeared to have been withdrawn, but Gerst said he was told that there continued to be a threat from others, and if a lawsuit were filed, the unnamed person would join it.

School district attorney Brian Braun has advised that in addition to the district, individual board members and administrators risk being sued.

An initial motion by board member Terry Greene to continue opening the meeting in prayer ended in a tie vote when Gerst abstained. The vote on the compromise followed. Board member Andy Busch voted against that motion. He said he was torn between his belief in prayer and a concern that the act of praying had become more important than the prayer itself.

As at the May 16 meeting, the issue played to a full house. Public opinion was mixed, with some citizens urging the board to stand firm and retain the prayer.

But Mahomet resident Mark Niswander, after reminding the audience and the board that people have long come to the United States for religious freedom, took a different view.

"You do not represent the majority, you represent all the people of Mahomet. And there are non-Christian people in this community," Niswander said. "I do not want this board gambling away my tax money on a chance we may or may not get sued."

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