By Cecily Markland
When a Mesa mother of four recently took a stand for her beliefs, the result was a win for religious freedom and for the entire Mesa community.
Michele Udall, her husband, Jesse, and their four children are members of Thayer Park Ward, Mountain View Stake. She also is a member of the school board for Mesa Public Schools, where she has served for three years.
She says, this past November, after receiving a letter complaining about the school board’s practice of beginning of their meetings prayer, the five-member board voted to replace those invocations with a moment of silence.
“We discontinued the prayers, but that didn’t sit well with us as a board. We are all people of faith,” Michele says.
In an op ed piece published in the Arizona Republic, Michele wrote: “Beginning school board meetings with prayer is an honored tradition in Mesa, long upheld and appreciated by the community. Likewise, the Supreme Court has noted that beginning public meetings of deliberative bodies with prayer is a part of the fabric of our society.”
Still, she says, they wanted to ensure the policy that had been in place since the beginning of Mesa Public Schools, was both “legal and appropriate.”
Michele, a native of Mesa and a graduate of Westwood High School, went to MIT after being awarded a full-ride scholarship to be on their gymnastics team. She returned home to Mesa when her father passed away, then left for a short time again to serve an 18-month LDS mission to the Philippines. Following her mission, she graduated from Arizona State University in computer software engineering.
“I got involved in the schools when my oldest started school,” Michele says. She decided to run for the school board, believing, “it was an area where I could help, where I thought I could be an influence for good.”
When prayer in the board meetings was questioned, Michele’s response haled back to her childhood. “I grew up in a home where parents taught us to pray, where prayer was practiced regularly as a family and individually.”
She also knew, as she wrote in her op ed piece, “In Arizona, prayer has been a part of public meetings for more than 100 years. In 1910, the Arizona Constitutional Convention was opened with an invocation and our State Legislature has opened with prayer since statehood. Mesa City Council Meetings and Mesa School Board Meetings have also begun with prayer since their earliest beginnings.”
Yet, she says, when the complaint against the school board was filed, “We looked at our policy and found potential holes in it. We needed to make it more appropriate and positive for everyone in the district.”
It was determined, “The opportunity to offer an invocation ought to be opened up to any and all faiths represented in the district,” Michele wrote.
A new policy was written to that effect and, in January, the school board voted unanimously to reinstate prayer and to invite clergy from all religions in the community to take a turn at leading those prayers.
Michele, who is currently running for the State Legislature says she is happy with the resolution.
“Prayer helps set the tone for the deliberations that are to follow,” she says, adding, “Our Founding Fathers clearly did not intend for prayer to be banished from public meetings.”