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A prayer breakfast for DCPS Superintendent Paul L. Vance raises church-and-state questions.
The chandeliered ballroom of the downtown J.W. Marriott Hotel may seem an unlikely gathering place for D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) and Board of Education employees. On Saturday, Nov. 3, however, hundreds of staffers from both educational organizations packed into the hotel for the first annual Superintendent’s Prayer Breakfast, sponsored by the D.C. Public Schools Ministerial Partnership.
In addition to numerous rank-and-file, the prayer breakfast also drew a bevy of District luminaries, including educational leaders such as Superintendent Paul L. Vance and Board of Education Chair Peggy Cooper Cafritz, and political leaders including Deputy Mayor Carolyn Graham and D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. Many area religious leaders also attended.
In general, any contiguity of the words “schools” and “prayer” raises First Amendment concerns about the separation of church and state. More specifically, however, this particular “prayer breakfast” drew multiple anonymous complaints received by the Washington City Paper, expressing outrage that DCPS employees were being asked to cough up $35 to attend a religious event on their own time.
The complainants argued that they were being “pressured” to attend and would be “branded uncooperative” if they failed to show up.
“I know nothing about this organization, what it stands for, what the proceeds are going for, or whether it is something I wish to contribute to,” wrote one DCPS employee. “I consider this the worst kind of harassmentand from a school system and city government that prevents prayer in public schools.”
However, when one reporter in attendance raised such concerns in a question-and-answer session at the breakfast, the Rev. Jeffrey Haggray, executive director of the D.C. Baptist Convention and the event’s master of ceremonies, replied, “It’s beside the point,” and quickly moved on to the next question. Haggray’s dismissive statement was met by audience applause.
Questioned after the event, Haggray vehemently denied any conflicts between the separation of church and public institutions in the prayer breakfast. “We want to support Dr. Vance personally and commit our influence in the larger community,” says Haggray. “[Ministerial Partnership members] have pulpits. We do not need to use the schoolhouse as a pulpit.”
Don Haines, administrative director for the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Capitol Area branch, says that the weekend scheduling of the event exempted it from constitutional provisions banning state-sponsored religious events.
“Government employees have the right to exercise religious beliefs on weekends like everyone else,” says Haines, quickly adding that if employees felt pressured to attend the event and feared consequences from their employers if they failed to show, then that is something different altogether. “We defend both the rights of employees to practice their religions and their right to be free from government-sponsored religion,” he says. “Any complaints received regarding the breakfast, or any other event, would be examined.”
Vance, the event’s guest of honor, also denies that any pressure was exerted on DCPS employees to attend. “Some [staffers] are very enthusiastic in pushing activities that are supportive of the schools and the superintendent, but no one was obligated to attend, and no one should have been pressured to attend,” he says. “You may have an instance where someone said, ‘Have you gotten your ticket yet? I’m definitely going. I’ve just purchased mine,’ which could have been viewed as pressure to attend. But we made a point to make certain that did not occur.”
Vance also notes that both the Washington Teachers’ Union and the Washington Principals’ Union were represented at and supportive of the event. “Normally, it is through these groups that such complaints are funneled.”
Barbara Bullock, director of the Washington Teachers’ Union, says there haven’t been any complaints. “No one has complained to my knowledge,” she says. “Actually, we had more people who wanted to attend than we had tables.”
Cafritz also insists that she hasn’t heard any complaints of coercion to attend. “I get a lot of calls, but I’ve not heard one complaint,” she says. “Usually if someone wants to complain about [the superintendent’s office], I’m the first person they call, but I haven’t heard anything.” Cafritz adds that she doesn’t understand charges of coercion. “I don’t know why anyone would feel pressured to attend. It was held on a Saturday completely outside of school time.”
One DCPS teacher, speaking on condition of anonymity, says that there has been much talk about the event among DCPS employeessome positive and some negative.
“I think some were just glad to be able to gather and hear positive things about our schools,” she says. “Then you have others who think it’s ridiculous to be asked to spend $35 to give up a chunk of their weekend.”
Although there have been no formal complaints surrounding the breakfast, this elementary school teacher speculates that this is because there is no one to whom one could safely complain: “With the superintendent, the president of the school board, and the mayor behind [the event], who exactly would we be complaining to?”
Despite billing its event as the “Superintendent’s” Prayer Breakfast, and thus implying a direct connection to DCPS, the Ministerial Partnership is not, in fact, affiliated with the school system. Rather, it is a loose collection of religious leaders, founded by Haggray, who have banded together to support the superintendent in his duties.
“We are, very simply, a group of ministers who have formed out of concern for D.C. public schools and their well-being,” says Haggray. “We were not a pre-existing ministerial group. We formed out of a common desire to improve our schools.”
Haggray says that the group’s primary goal has been to provide public support for Vance. “In the last five years,” he says, “we have seen almost as many superintendents come and go in this townwe recognize that public service can be very lonely, and one of our key functions is to provide moral support for our new superintendent.” The group’s efforts also include sending notes and placing phone calls of encouragement, and taking Vance out to breakfast and lunch.
Despite the confusion surrounding the event, Haggray says he was pleased with the turnout. He says he is eager to contribute the breakfast’s proceeds to various projects involving the District’s public schools.
“We were extremely impressed by the number of people interested in the prayer breakfast,” Haggray says. “It shows not so much that our group is influential, or that religion is at an all-time high, but that the community is very concerned about its schools.”
Vance expresses similar sentiments. “If I could, on any Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, get faith leaders talking positively about public schools, I consider that a major plus for this city,” says Vance. “We want faith communities involved, professional and amateur athletes, liberals, conservatives. We’re building a constituency for the school system, but being ever careful that no ideology is allowed to creep into our teaching methodology.” CP