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Pastor at Center of School-prayer Flap

By Bob Allen

A Florida Southern Baptist pastor says he has no intention of ending weekly prayers around an elementary school flagpole that the school district's attorney says are unconstitutional.

"We're not changing anything," Ron Baker, the pastor of the 2,000-member Russell Baptist Church in Green Cove Springs, Fla., told the Florida Times-Union.

Baker, who celebrates his 30th anniversary Nov. 6 at the church affiliated with Black Creek Baptist Association and the Florida Baptist Convention, has been conducting flagpole prayers at four Clay County schools for 12 years. They went largely unnoticed until the principal at Clay Hill Elementary School recently sent a Sept. 30 memo to his 40-member staff saying the First Amendment applies only to Christians.

That prompted a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation viewing the flagpole rallies as an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by government.

Clay County School Board attorney J. Bruce Bickner issued a legal opinion saying, "A review of the law and pertinent cases clearly indicate these enumerated activities all work together to make this a clear violation of the establishment clause and a clear case of endorsement of religion generally and Christianity particularly."

Superintendent Ben Wortham initially asked Baker to stop holding the prayer meetings but later said they could continue if the sessions were moved up before 7:10 a.m. when teachers report to schools. The prayers have been beginning around 8:15 a.m.

Baker initially agreed but changed his mind. "I think if I were to stop, it somehow sends the message that I think it must be wrong," Baker said. "Why wouldn't I want to pray for the safety and security of that school, pray for all those teachers and administration, pray for all those students."

Baker said he was advised by Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice "that there is nothing illegal about what we're doing and that it falls well within the perimeters of what the Constitution allows."

For the community, controversy over the flagpole prayers has made them more appealing. Prior to the principal's memo, about a dozen people would gather to pray. On Monday, Oct. 24, about 150 people gathered around the flagpole at Clay Hill Elementary.

Bob Allen is managing editor of Associated Baptist Press.

Published December 7, 2010

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