After a contentious debate, Broward School Board narrowly endorses National Day of Prayer

Miami Herald | By Jimena Tavel | May 3, 2023

The Broward School Board voted 5-3 Tuesday to endorse the National Day of Prayer Thursday in the district’s public schools after a contentious debate on whether the action was inappropriate and rushed — or positive and much-needed.

This is the first time the Broward School Board officially recognized the day, Cathleen Brennan, a district spokesperson, told the Herald Wednesday.

The National Day of Prayer is an annual day of observance held on the first Thursday of May in which people should “turn to God in prayer and meditation.” The commemoration dates back to 1952 when President Harry Truman signed the bill into law after Congress passed the measure in a joint resolution. In 1988, former president Ronald Reagan designated the first Thursday in May to recognize it.

Board member Daniel Foganholi introduced the resolution, which “urges all schools, centers, departments, parents, businesses, governmental and community agencies and the entire community to participate in the significant role prayer plays in shaping the lives of our students and the future of our great nation.”

In March, the Miami-Dade School Board unanimously approved for the second consecutive year a similar measure to commemorate the National Day of Prayer in the district’s public schools.

Foganholi, who represents District 1, said he remembers standing alongside his peers around the flagpole about 15 minutes before class started and praying on the National Day of Prayer, and he wants students nowadays to do it too. He attended a public school and a charter school in Broward.

“It wasn’t a huge party — it wasn’t music, it wasn’t lights. It was a simple day,” he said. “We would join hands people of different faiths, different people just coming together and sharing a moment, a moment of prayer.”

Foganholi, who was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in December to replace Rodney Velez, whom voters elected in November but couldn’t be sworn into office because of his former criminal conviction, and board members Debra Hixon, Torey Alston, Lori Alhadeff and Brenda Fam voted in favor.

Board members Sarah Leonardi, Jeff Holness and Allen Zeman opposed it. Board member Nora Rupert was absent because she was in the hospital.


Hixon, the vice chair from the countywide Seat 9, initially questioned whether the resolution would infringe upon the separation of church and state under the U.S. Constitution.

“It’s just a statement of support of the Day of Prayer. It does not contain any language that states that the students are going to have to pray or not pray,” Broward Schools Interim General Counsel Madelyn Batista told Hixon. “And just for clarification purposes, student-led prayer in schools is permitted; the only thing that is not permitted is if it is raised by someone who works for the School Board.”

Debra Hixon, vice chair of the Broward School Board, questioned whether a National Day of Prayer in the district’s schools would infringe upon the separation of church and state under the U.S. Constitution, Tuesday, May 2, 2023. Alie Skowronski

Leonardi, from District 3, challenged that. She said that the statement wouldn’t be “student-led” because it would be coming from the School Board itself and ordering all bodies under it to participate.

Leonardi, a former teacher, described herself as a “deeply religious person” who has been a member of her church for 10 years and served in it for five years. But she rejected the resolution.

“As a teacher, I never brought my faith into the classroom. If students spoke up about their faith or lack thereof, I encouraged that discussion, but it was really important for me as a teacher and as a person of authority in that classroom to not impose my beliefs on my students,” she said. “I personally think that prayer is so important and I respect anyone’s choice to celebrate their faith and practice their faith, but I think when we, as a board, in a position of authority, urge people to participate in a faith-based celebration, it’s inappropriate.”

“I respect the intent with which this was brought forward,” she added, “but right now this is not something that I can support on legal and moral grounds.”

Broward County School Board member Sarah Leonardi voted against the National Day of Prayer resolution. A former teacher, she was concerned about having the board endorse a religious measure. MATIAS J. OCNER Miami Herald file


Before voting on it, Hixon also asked what it would look like in practice: Would it be a social media post, a morning announcement? What would happen at schools Thursday?

Broward Schools Interim Superintendent Earlean Smiley said student governments and other student council organizations will hold activities like praying around the flagpole on Thursday.

“This board would be saying, ‘Yes, we support the day of prayer. Students have the will and freedom to organize themselves around that concept,’” she said.

Earlean Smiley, interim superintendent of Broward County public schools, said students could choose how to recognize the board’s endorsement of a National Day of Prayer in the schools on Thursday, May 4, 2023. Alie Skowronski
Broward School Board member Brenda Fam, District 6, supported the National Day of Prayer measure, saying it was needed in today’s times. Alie Skowronski

Fam, from district 6, said everyone has faith and praying is about that, and “in today’s day and age, it’s really easy to focus on the negative … and we need to focus on the positive.”

But Holness, from district 5, disagreed, reminding the board the district has students who believe in God, and students who don’t. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines prayer as “the act or practice of praying to God or a god.”

“Even though I grew up as a Christian … I believe my role as a board member is to ensure that I am … including everyone in what we do,” he said.

Broward School Board member Jeff Holness, District 5, who voted against the National Day of Prayer resolution on Tuesday, May 4, 2023. He said he was concerned about students who don’t believe in God and wanted to hear from people of different faiths. Alie Skowronski

He said that because Foganholi added the resolution to the board’s agenda on Friday, he didn’t have time to research how many school districts have passed similar measures in Florida, and ask those that have done so about any challenges they faced. He said he also couldn’t speak to constituents from different religions, including Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, to see “what their take is on this.”

“I just want to make sure that when I do make a decision like this it’s an informed decision,” he said. “I haven’t had any input from any of the stakeholders in the community.”

Alston, from district 2, asked Batista if the resolution limited “diversity, inclusion, acceptance” or “types of faith.” Batista said no.

“This is not limiting to anyone. It is absolutely very inclusive,” Alston said.



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