Suzy Roberts Never Had a Prayer

How a school board member was branded a heretic for asking a simple question
by Published on
Suzy Rooberts

The No. 1 rule of Pearland politics is, “Don’t Feed the Christians.” Don’t give them anything to work with-no questions, no jokes, nothing. You don’t have to be devout to serve in this 51-percent Christian suburb of Houston, but when somebody says, “prayer,” you’d best keep your head bowed until somebody says, “amen.”

Nobody told Suzy Roberts. The 52-year-old mother and retired nurse ran for the Pearland Independent School District board in May and, in spite of the Darwin fish on her minivan, was elected. Roberts and her husband have lived in Pearland since 1983 and have a daughter in high school.

Nearly the first thing Roberts did once in office was send a letter to the school board president asking several questions about board procedure. Most were mundane; others, philosophical. “What are our goals?” she asked. “Where do we want to be in 10 years?”

Roberts, whose term runs until 2010, almost certainly won’t be on the school board in 10 years-if she’s in Pearland at all-because one of the questions she asked was whether it was legal for the board to be opening its meetings with a prayer.

The small-town drama that ensued was a case study in what happens when majority rule goes terribly wrong, why laws protecting minorities are necessary, and why those laws must be enforced. Roberts spoke up for religious minorities in Pearland, and she got crucified.

First came the reaction from her colleagues on the seven-member board. “I believe the unimaginally [sic] vast majority of Pearland residents support this practice,” board President Tom Allen wrote in response to Roberts’ query. Allen, elected in 2002, is also pastor of the Crosspoint Fellowship Church. He suggested that unless Roberts thought she could get a majority of the board to support dropping the prayer, she should stop wasting its time.

At a meeting Roberts didn’t attend, the board preemptively voted to change its rules so that no member could place an item on the agenda without a second. Board members might have thought this would shut Roberts up. It didn’t.

Roberts, who in college served as secretary of the Student Gay and Lesbian Alliance in spite of being, in her words, “hopelessly heterosexual,” sent the district superintendent documentation arguing that the rule change was illegal. So the board changed another rule to legalize the rule requiring a second.

Roberts then mustered a second from board Vice President Florida Dotson, and the question of an opening prayer went on the board’s October 9 agenda.

Then came the e-mails-hundreds of them.

“Hi,” one said. “Being a parent of two children in your school district I request you ask the few or one person on the school board that do [sic] not want prayer or God in our schools to step down and move to New York. This is God’s Country and I say if you don’t need God we don’t need you.”

A member of the local Parent-Teacher Alliance used her e-mail list to distribute the erroneous information that Roberts was lobbying to ban prayer at all public functions in Pearland and to stop students from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

This inspired another constituent to write, “If you believe in God, how can you want to take Him out of our kids lives, the pledges that they say to start their day, and the football games where He is needed the most?”

Then came the meeting.

President Allen opened with this: “Before we begin … I want to be very, very clear that it is not the board as a whole or the superintendent who wishes to consider the legality or appropriateness of a prayer in the board room or in other activities of our district.”

Roberts interjected, “Point of order, Mr. President. I believe at the last session, when the consultant was here, every board member present agreed to request a legal opinion.”

“I cannot speak to that,” Allen said.

“Well perhaps Mrs. Dotson, who was presiding at that meeting, could,” Roberts said.

Dotson answered, “That is correct.”

“OK,” Allen pressed on. “I would like to make this point, though, that it is very plain and very simple and very important, from conversations I’ve had with the superintendent and certain board members, that they do not want to be lumped in with saying we are in favor of doing away with school prayer.”

The crowd went wild. They cheered and cheered.

Then Allen did something unexpected. After five-and-a-half years on the board, he resigned, right then, for unspecified health reasons. But he used his parting speech to say this:

“I want to encourage this board to be intolerant. Do not place political correctness and playing nice in public above your convictions. Do not think that to get God out and condoms in would in any way make this a better district. I know you’re on television now, but I encourage you to resist the temptation to smile and placate, but rather to say, ‘Shut up,’ when it is called for. To the community, I would say, if a board member fails to represent you and the majority of this community, please make it very, very clear that they will not be tolerated.”

Allen closed by saying, “While I will not be here in this seat, there is one very, very powerful thing that I can do for our district, and I want to do it … right … now. Lord God, I thank you …”

Allen left the meeting, and Dotson took over. Because so many people had signed up to speak on the prayer issue, Dotson asked them to send forward a few representatives. Five members of the public-four of them pastors at local churches-urged the board to keep prayer in schools. Mike Hogg, pastor of the Second Baptist Church Pearland, asked the board to place “God first, family second, and job third in their lives,” according to board minutes.

In truth, the meeting was only partly about prayer or the law. The 200 people who attended gathered not to protect their right to pray-or, more accurately, their right not to find out if it was legal for them to pray-but to exercise their power as the majority.

Jesus said, “When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who is in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:5-6.)

Apparently nobody told Allen.

That night, Roberts received the kind of bullying she was trying to prevent from reaching certain children in the schools: children raised in other religions, children whose parents chose to raise them without religion, and Christians like Roberts who believe that Christ’s love is incompatible with intolerance. Those are the children who must bow their heads and play along, lest they invoke from their classmates the reaction the parents gave Roberts.

In its November meeting, the board voted, on advice from its lawyer, to transform its “opening prayer” into “introductory remarks,” which board members would deliver on a rotating basis. The remarks could be an inspirational thought, recitation of a poem, a moment of silence, or a prayer. After the massive saber-rattling of Pearland’s own Christian coalition, you’d better believe that every board member will say a prayer, and that when a prayer is said, every head will be bowed and every eye closed.

Emily DePrang is a writer in Pearland, Texas.

Emily DePrang is a staff writer at The Texas Observer where she covers criminal justice and public health. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and Salon.com, and she’s a former nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. She’s holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2013, she was a National Health Journalism Fellow; in 2012 she won the Sigma Delta Chi award for public service in magazine journalism.