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Evanston/Skokie School District 65 opened the year for all teachers and staff on Monday, Aug. 22, with a first day convocation featuring welcoming remarks from Superintendent Devon Horton, Mayor Daniel Biss and School Board President Sergio Hernandez, among others.

Spencer Nabors leaves the stage after speaking to District 65 staff at the district convocation on August 22, 2022 at Quad Indoor Sports. Credit: Richard Cahan

But the district also invited the Rev. Michael Nabors of the Second Baptist Church, also the president of the Evanston North Shore NAACP chapter, to provide an “invocation” as part of the event’s schedule, according to a news release the district sent to media members. Nabors encountered a problem with traveling over the weekend, though, so he sent his daughter, Minister Spencer Nabors, to give the invocation in his place.

“Gracious and loving God, we come now at the dawn of another academic year in District 65 in Evanston. We are grateful for the gathering today and for the staff who are present, as well as those who are not able to attend,” Spencer Nabors said in the invocation. “We ask now that you look down upon every single employee of the district.

“We pray that you bless all support staff in every school, bless every maintenance worker, bless every teacher’s aide and assistant, bless every teacher and faculty member, bless every assistant principal and principal, bless all District 65 administrators, assistant superintendents and the superintendent.”

Just a day after the event took place, however, Horton wrote an email to all staff, and he said the district had received complaints from some employees who were offended by the specifically religious connotation of the invocation. (See the text of Horton’s letter below.)

In the letter, he also wrote that the Rev. Michael Nabors, as a leader in the Evanston community, often speaks at both religious and nonreligious events, and he “typically gives greetings and invocations that are secular and non-denominational,” according to Horton.

In the prayer, Spencer Nabors also quoted “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling, who has a history of making offensive comments about transgender issues. Horton apologized for the reference to Rowling and said the district would take more care in the future to review any comments made to staff in advance.

“We had no intention of offering official prayer calling for the presence of a deity,” Horton said in his email to staff on Tuesday.

“Unfortunately, the impact of this portion of the program was that it did not feel in line with the personal liberty and inclusion that D65 is committed to. I apologize for those remarks that were offensive.”

Separation of church and state

In an effort to better understand the legal consequences of a public school district including prayer at an official event for teachers, the RoundTable spoke to three experts in constitutional law who teach at law schools in Chicago.

Ultimately, because schoolchildren were not present for the event on Monday, this particular situation lies in a legal gray area without much prior case law or precedent, the experts said.

Since the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that any prayer or overtly religious act in a classroom setting with students present is unconstitutional, but the court has also maintained that local or state legislative bodies can rightfully open their meetings with a prayer or benediction based on American traditions.

To make things even more complicated, the current Supreme Court, with a strong conservative majority, has recently issued several rulings that have reversed decades of case law on this topic, according to Steven Schwinn, a professor of law at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Most famously, in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the court ruled in favor of a high school football coach in Washington who prayed with players and coaches on the field after each game.

As a result, current constitutional law is rapidly moving toward the side of protecting religious expression rather than preserving the separation of church and state as outlined in the establishment clause of the First Amendment, Schwinn and other experts told the RoundTable.

“The Supreme Court fundamentally changed its approach to these kinds of questions, and has said that it will now look at history and tradition, and do it in what I think is likely to be a results-oriented way,” Schwinn said.

“And what I mean by that is, there’s a particular ideological bent on this court that has a strong preference for allowing people to express their religious beliefs and, in particular, evangelical Christians.”

Five years ago, for example, if a teacher in District 65 sued the district for invoking God in a prayer, he or she likely could have won that case on the grounds that the event was mandatory for teachers, therefore coercing them into participating in a religious practice, according to law experts.

But now, with the current Supreme Court favoring the expression of religion in public, the district would likely prevail in any lawsuit brought against it.

“The conservative majority on the court might say that if everyone else gets to weigh in, if every other point of view is represented, if every other community leader is able to have their say, then it can be perceived as hostility to religion to exclude only the religious and only religion from a place at the table,” University of Chicago Professor of Law Mary Anne Case said. “This is not a development I personally favor, but I am describing it for you because it is real and clear.”

Letter from Horton

Below is the full text of Horton’s letter to District 65 staff addressing concerns about the prayer at Monday’s event:

Dear D65 Staff,

I wanted to say thank you for attending yesterday’s event and we are sorry for any discomfort or confusion this caused. 

After reviewing the Thought Exchange from yesterday’s event it was noted that some of our staff were offended. In holding an invocation, we believed it would show gratitude and appreciation. We had no intention of offering official prayer calling for the presence of a deity. We had planned for Pastor Nabors, president of the NAACP, to give the invocation, but he was unable to attend due to difficulties with airline travel. Pastor Nabors is well known in our community and typically gives greetings and invocations that are secular and non-denominational. We were grateful that he was able to send Minister Spencer Nabors in his place. Finally, it has come to our intention that a reference was made during the invocation of an author who is known to not support LGBTQ+ individuals. Unfortunately, the impact of this portion of the program was that it did not feel in line with the personal liberty and inclusion that D65 is committed to. I apologize for those remarks that were offensive. In the future, we will make every attempt to review in advance any future presentations to our staff.

The Miracles framework leads off with Motion towards equity and as a district we must reflect and operate with vulnerability. So thank you for being open to sharing your concerns in a manner that honors respect, dignity, professionalism, courteousness and humanizing. As you may know from our improvement process, the MIRACLES framework has been used widely  to describe the D65 framework of bold strategies and hard work that positively impacts our commitment to building safe, engaging and welcoming learning environments for students and staff. Each letter in the word stands for a particular aspect of educational progress, none of which are tied to religion or religious expression. In fact Evanston Skokie 65’s MIRACLES in Action: December 2021 Report to the Community was selected as a winner in the 2022 Illinois Chapter of the National School Public Relations Association’s Communications Contest! This is a national recognition that further solidifies how critical and impactful our MIRACLES framework has been.

One common definition of MIRACLES is “an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment.” This definition is our connection to the word MIRACLES. We believe that this is what our teachers and staff are collectively doing for our children in District 65. There is no religious connotation intended. Thank you to those that reached out to hold us accountable for the unintended impact of this portion of our day, holding each other accountable for missteps is how we excel together. We were grateful for the opportunity to celebrate the kickoff of the school year together and share so much of the important work that has been done over the summer to position us all for a stellar school year.

Warm regards,

— 

Dr. Devon Horton

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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  1. This is far more telling about the sorry state that D65 finds itself in than it says anything about the quality or even presence of the prayer. No wonder enrollment keeps dropping.

  2. Apologizing was the right thing to do and I commend Dr. Horton for making that step. Thank you for the follow-up Evanston Roundtable

  3. Yes, unfortunately the separation between church and state is narrowing. Some months ago,I encountered an outdoor event honoring members of the EPD. Three EPD chaplains representing three different religions offered benedictions. At another outdoor event this summer honoring fallen EV firefighters, again, several chaplains offered prayers.
    In both cases, I was put-off by prayers and symbols at public events sponsored by city government or public service departments.
    I appreciate, in these two examples, that those honored are more likely than I to share religious beliefs. Still, students, teachers, city employees, and citizens participating in “state” events or programs should expect “separation” from religion.

  4. First prayer in Congress Sept.7,1774 and America’s response — I can defend — the action of the school district to an invocation they invited I cannot.