The issue of a few students and their parents praying around flagpoles at five Clay County schools has metastasized into a political sideshow of clergy, lawyers, zealots and freethinkers. The spectacle comes complete with finger-pointing, name-calling, YouTube videos and personal attacks, but it’s no joke. Indeed, the battle could yet exact a legal and financial toll on Clay County schools, and has already affected the district’s political landscape.
In August, residents will vote for superintendent and School Board, and as one political observer recently told Folio Weekly, “Politics is a bloodsport in Clay County.” The upcoming superintendent race pits School Board member and vocal flagpole-prayer supporter Charlie Van Zant against longtime educator and incumbent Superintendent Ben Wortham, who pledges to “fight for our … students’ rights to pray.”
Both men are Republicans, meaning the race in this predominately red county will likely be resolved in the August primary. Both candidates are campaigning on a platform of improving education in Florida’s 22nd largest district, currently ranked the state’s 13th-best. But the contest in this conservative stronghold may have as much to do with the school prayer issue as any concrete plans for leading the district.
For more than 10 years, the Rev. Ron Baker, pastor of the Russell Baptist Church in Green Cove Springs, has gathered with students, parents and sometimes teachers for a brief prayer service at five county schools — a different school each day. Baker tells Folio Weekly that school administrators were aware of his flagpole prayers, and that he was explicitly invited by the principals of at least two schools. But the issue didn’t become a public concern until September, when Clay Hill Elementary School Principal Larry Davis mentioned the prayers in a newsletter to faculty.
“Our prayer around the school’s flagpole event is to pray for the nation, for each other and for other schools,” he wrote, going on to quote another pastor, who incorrectly said, “The First Amendment was for Christianity, not other religions.”
Davis ended his comments by stating, “Our prayer around the flagpole gatherings are permissible because they are community led and take place outside our class time.”
The leaked newsletter became news, and in October, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., sent a letter to Superintendent Wortham advising him that Clay County Schools were in violation of the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. (The group cited only the morning prayer meetings at Clay Hill Elementary, apparently unaware that similar prayer sessions were held at Charles E. Bennett, Lake Asbury and Shadowlawn elementary schools and Clay High School. Wortham himself claimed at a recent School Board meeting that he was unaware of the prayer sessions until last fall.)
In response to the dustup, School Board Attorney Bruce Bickner advised board members to curtail the prayers or risk a costly lawsuit. “The unabated continuation of these violations of law will likely result in the filing of a civil rights lawsuit against the School Board, the Superintendent, individual School Board members and other possible defendants,” he told the board.
The board heeded Bickner’s advice, and in December voted 3-2 to seek an injunction banning Baker from school property. (They later rescinded that vote when Baker agreed to suspend his prayer sessions).
But even as the board was grappling with the legalities of school prayer, the state legislature — led by Van Zant’s own eponymous papa, state Rep. Charles Van Zant (R-Palatka) — was finding new avenues to accommodate school prayer.
The elder Van Zant is currently seeking re-election to a seat he won late in life and as something of a fluke. An architect and Baptist minister, Van Zant senior had no experience in elected office until 2007, when he was appointed to temporarily fill his son’s seat, after the junior Van Zant was deployed overseas. (Charles Sr. may somewhat exaggerate his role during that brief stint in office on his website bio: “During this time, Charles oversaw the development of a half-billion-dollar budget while maintaining an ‘A’ rated school system.”)
The elder Van Zant — a social conservative and vocal NRA member — has taken his conservative outlook to Tallahassee, where he has pushed for an outright ban on all abortions and for a bill that would impose felony charges against doctors who perform them. This legislative session, however, yielded his most-publicized — and ultimately successful — bill, allowing for students to deliver “inspirational messages” at mandatory events in public schools.
The bill was recently signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, but the American Civil Liberties Union has warned that school districts adopt the policy at their own peril. “Doing so would not only be divisive,” wrote ACLU of Florida Executive Director Howard Simon in an open letter to Florida superintendents, “but likely lead to prolonged litigation.”
The elder Van Zant dismisses such concerns. He told Folio Weekly the Clay County School Board should “man up” and not be concerned about the threat of lawsuits. “The School Board should not be fearful from outsiders,” says Rep. Van Zant. “This is America and we have freedom of speech … given to us by the Almighty.” (Van Zant Jr. did not return calls for comment.)
Rep. Van Zant says his bill was not in response to the situation in Clay County, saying he first tried to pass the bill two years ago. “They are not hinged to each other, but certainly related to each other. I think it was God’s work.”
But he also believes Pastor Baker should be allowed to conduct his school prayer sessions. “They have a great church and he’s a chaplain for the Clay County Sheriff’s Office,” Rep. Van Zant says.
The Rev. Harry Parrott, a retired American Baptist minister who lives in Penney Farms, a small Clay County community built by J.C. Penney for retired ministers and missionaries, is concerned about Baker’s prayer sessions, however. “There is a heavy blanket of religious and political conservatism about this county,” says Parrott, a member of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “The superintendent of schools, the lawyer, members of the School Board and the teachers who teach in the school system are all intimidated.”
It wouldn’t be surprising if they were. Recent School Board meetings where the prayer issue has been discussed have proven heated, with arguments erupting among board members and between the board and the public. During a December skirmish between the husband of School Board Chair Carol Studdard and frequent School Board critic Stanley Pfenning, James Studdard told Pfenning, “don’t you f*cking touch me.” As it happens, Pfenning was filming the encounter on his phone, and posted the video to YouTube (http://bit.ly/HCXuFN). After the clip went viral among county residents, a furious James Studdard took to the podium during the public comment section of the March 15 meeting, and read off, one by one, a series of charges that he said comprised Pfenning’s arrest record. When Pfenning objected, Chairwoman Studdard directed sheriff’s deputies to escort him from the meeting. Board Member Lisa Graham quietly left the dais in protest.
Wortham predicts civility and tranquility will eventually return to School Board meetings. “No seeming discord will keep us from fulfilling that [which] we have been elected to do,” he says.
But the contest for superintendent seems certain to stoke the controversy. Although Wortham has said he supports a policy that would allow for student prayer, which he calls “valuable and needed” and a “God-given right,” his opponent has been more vocal in his support of Pastor Baker, insisting the majority of county residents want and support school prayer.
The issue has also prompted some tension between Wortham and Van Zant. Following a March 1 board workshop at which two attorneys presented a legal analysis of the constitutionality of prayer in schools, Van Zant wanted to host a Town Hall meeting for residents to vent their feelings. Wortham denied him use of the same room immediately after the workshop, saying it was against policy to use school facilities for political meetings. School Board Attorney Bickner also objected, citing a possible violation of the state’s open meeting laws.
Since the workshop, Bickner has been working on a new “Use of Grounds” policy that would open up the school grounds to all groups, including prayer sessions. Under the proposed policy, meetings must begin 35 minutes before the start of classes and can last only 10 minutes. Groups wanting to use facilities must fill out a form and provide proof of liability insurance. A facilities license will only be good for five months and is subject to the approval of the superintendent. And only one adult without a child in the school can represent the group.
“This is not going to make everybody happy,” Bickner says, “but you are not going to miserable, either.” The changes will be presented to the board for consideration on Thursday, April 19.
Pastor Baker hasn’t seen the proposal, but believes restrictions placed on his activities will make it impractical to continue his prayer meetings. He questions requirements for insurance, restrictions on the number of adults without school children and the time limit, which he says could prevent him from running the prayer groups. He says he will challenge the parts of the proposal he opposes. “I am not interested in a lawsuit,” he says, “[but] we will continue our fight at the grassroots level.”
Some have suggested that Baker is intentionally dragging out the matter in an effort to make it an issue in the superintendent’s race. Baker dismisses that claim. “It doesn’t matter to me who is sitting in the superintendent’s chair,” he says.
But there’s no question that the single defining issue for the school district over the past half-year hasn’t had a thing to do with academics. And that, some observers, could ultimately hurt students.
“It is a quite good school system,” says the Rev. Parrott. “It is more important than ever not to allow a takeover by the religious right. They can cause enormous harm.”
“Right now,” he adds, “it is a mess, a God-awful mess.”