MIAMI — A measure to commemorate the National Day of Prayer in Miami-Dade Public Schools on Wednesday led to an outpouring of support, but caused a stir when one board member suggested “God and Jesus Christ” were the only God, leading the vice chair to apologize for the “hurt, pain and anguish” caused by board members’ comments.
The comments capped a 13-hour School Board meeting that ended around midnight, with the public discussion taking hours.
National Day of Prayer in Miami schools
The issue began with a resolution proffered by board member Christi Fraga, calling for the School Board to recognize Thursday, May 5, 2022, as a National Day of Prayer within the schools, in accordance with Congress designating the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer.
Fraga said her measure made no changes to classroom or district policies, she told the Herald Thursday. Rather, she wanted to unite people of all faiths and encourage those who want to get together and pray to do so.
Dozens of parents and community organizations like the Christian Family Coalition, which says on its website that its mission is “To Empower Families At The Grassroots Level to Give Them A Voice In Their Government Again!” spoke at Wednesday’s board meeting. Most were in favor of the measure, with some saying it was their right — and their children’s right — to pray in school. Some evoked the Constitution; one claimed that religion in this country was under attack.
Most who spoke espoused the Christian faith.
“We fully support the right of students to pray individually in school, and that is a right already afforded to them by law,” Josh Sayles, the director of Jewish Community Relations and Government Affairs at the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, said in a statement Thursday evening.
But based on previous experience, he added, “the needs of the Jewish community and other minority religions often have been overlooked when overly broad legislation addressing religion is proposed, and such legislation also has the potential to blur the line between church and state.”
Sayles did acknowledge that the resolution “appears to maintain proper First Amendment boundaries.” The resolution was updated prior to Wednesday’s meeting to ensure it aligned with state and federal laws.
The board passed the measure in a 9-0 vote.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, public elementary and secondary schools should have no policy that prevents, or otherwise denies participation in, constitutionally protected prayer in public schools.
But, the DOE notes in its “Overview of Governing Constitutional Principles” related to school prayer, U.S. Supreme Court decisions have said “teachers and other public school officials, acting in their official capacities, may not lead their classes in prayer, devotional readings from the Bible, or other religious activities, nor may school officials use their authority to attempt to persuade or compel students to participate in prayer or other religious activities.”
School board member’s comments raises issues
Ibty Dames, a senior at the School for Advanced Studies Homestead, was struck by how people did not take into account other faiths.
“I’m Muslim, so listening to the whole discussion was disheartening,” the 17-year-old said. “The fact that they just said we could all just pray together was ignorant. We all pray differently, so it’s not practical to just assume we can all come together and pray.”
School Board Member Lubby Navarro’s comments were particularly upsetting, Ibty said.
Navarro, appointed by then Gov. Rick Scott in 2015 and elected in 2016 and 2020, recounted a time last year when her daughter was in a coma, saying, “If it was not for the power of prayer, I would not have gotten out of there without my daughter alive after seven days.”
She hopes a recognition such as this one will change students’ and administrators’ reactions: Young people, “If you’re going through a crisis, take a moment to pray and ask God to help you, instead of saying ‘go home’ or instead of saying, ‘Let’s send you to your counselor.’ ”
Ibty said the notion that a School Board member would suggest students pray away their sadness could hinder them from seeking therapeutic services that could help them.
And in her final comments, Navarro said she hopes recognizing a day of prayer will “send a message to our community that we have one creator, one creator, and that is God and Jesus Christ.”
Feeling others were ‘invisible’ after Navarro’s comments
For Carrie Feit, a parent of two in the district, lawyer and community advocate, the message from the dais was too much.
Feit, who is Jewish, said she appreciated the talks of faith and unity in the conversation. But hearing a board member evoke Jesus’ name, “felt like all of a sudden, you’re not in the room; you’re invisible,” she told the Herald Thursday.
She reiterated that it wasn’t so much the item itself, or effort to recognize a day of prayer, but the “final point that was put on it” that upset her.
The board discussion led Vice Chair Steve Gallon III to apologize for comments made by board members. Though he didn’t specify which comments or by whom, he pointed to statements that could have been perceived as offensive and divisive.
The effort reflects “a sensitivity toward all groups, all religions, all creeds, all colors, all races, all people, all children,” he said. “But my heart was heavy when I took a respite for a moment and heard some commentary relative to how some people were made to feel.”
The board item did not offend, he reiterated, but “there were some offenses taken relative to some of the comments that were made.”
“I personally as a board member apologize,” he said.
Feit didn’t think any board member comments were intended to hurt members of the community, she said, but appreciated Gallon’s apology.
Miami schools doesn’t recognize Eid as holiday
Despite the talks of inclusivity, many, if not most, of the voices heard at Wednesday’s meeting belonged to the Christian faith. When asked if the show of people could indicate that one religion could be favored over another, Fraga, who is running to be mayor of Doral, rejected the idea, saying people need to look at the demographics of Miami when looking at who was speaking.
In fact, she said, “families who have a certain belief system have almost been silenced or have sat quietly. Now they’re saying we should be a part of that inclusivity.”
Shabbir Motorwala, of the Coalition of South Florida Muslim Organizations (COSMOS), hopes that remains true.
“I think it’s a fantastic idea, the national day of prayer,” he told the Herald. “Where we come from, religion is always a central part of our life, as long as we are not pitting one against the other.”
He did note, however, that in December Miami-Dade Schools rejected an effort to have Eid, which marks the end of Ramadan and is one of the holiest days in the Islamic calendar, recognized as a holiday in the 2022-23 school year calendar.
“The issue we have with the school system is that they recognize Christmas and Jewish holidays, but don’t give the same recognition to Muslim holidays,” he said.
Last year, the Broward School Board voted to recognize Eid as a school holiday in 2023.