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Proposal results from school prayer sessions

Clay Co. School Board addresses how non-school entities use campus property

Pastor Ron Baker agreed to lead his weekly prayers at Clay Hill Elementary off school property after Clay County school officials threatened legal action.
Pastor Ron Baker agreed to lead his weekly prayers at Clay Hill Elementary off school property after Clay County school officials threatened legal action.

CLAY COUNTY, Fla. – A Clay County pastor's prayer sessions at Clay Hill Elementary school last year sparked heated debate among the community.

Pastor Ron Baker, of Russell Baptist Church, and the Clay County School Board eventually agreed to move the weekly prayers from around the flag pole at the school to across the street, off school grounds. But now a proposal among the board may ease some of the tension and public outcry that resulted from the prayer sessions.

Members of the School Board met Thursday evening to address how non-school entities use campus property.

"There's still some work to do on it as far as being able to proceed with prayers at the pole in an equal and opportunistic way," Baker said.

The decision was made to allow outside groups or clubs on the grounds only 30 minutes before school started and 30 minutes after school ended.

A 3-2 majority of the board voted in favor of the proposal.

"It's very important. I was convinced from the beginning we'd find some unity in this to protect the rights of our students, who always have the right to have prayer at the school," said Ben Wortham, the Superintendent of Clay County Schools.

Board members called the decision a win-win, but not everyone agreed.

"I don't see it that way because I want zero dollars spent on something they want," said Ben Owens, who opposes the proposal. "Say we'll compromise and spend 50, I still lose because I'm giving up my foundational standing I wanted here."

"Prayer is well need. We need prayer right now. There's a lot of things going on," said Rev. Dr. L. Micah Dexter II.

In November, Clay County Schools' legal counsel, Bruce Bickner, found the prayers going on at Clay Hill were in clear violation of the U.S. Constitution because teachers and staff participated during their school day and the school's principal invited Baker to hold the prayer event and had it promoted in the school newsletter.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation had threatened to sue -- something both the School Board and Baker wanted to avoid.

Baker said he agreed to move his gatherings to a new location to avoid putting members of the group -- especially children -- in any kind of situation that might involve the police. He said the new location would not change the goal of the worshipers.

"The motivation is still the same: Pray for God's blessing on the school, students, faculty, bus drivers -- everybody involved in the school life," Baker said at the time.