New College officials deny new board member's request for prayer

Zac Anderson
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Eddie Speir tweeted earlier this month about a Buffalo Bills football player collapsing on the field and implied it might be related to the COVID-19 vaccine. Gov. Ron DeSantis recently appointed Speir, the founder of Inspiration Academy in Bradenton, to the New College of Florida board.

In a possible sign of the conflicts to come, new board of trustees member Eddie Speir says his request to open New College of Florida's meeting with a prayer was rebuffed by college officials.

The founder and chairman of a Bradenton Christian school, Speir and five others were appointed to New College's board earlier this month by Gov. Ron DeSantis in a bid to take the Sarasota school in a more conservative direction.

The DeSantis administration has talked about modeling New College on Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian school in Michigan. That has raised concerns among some New College supporters about overtly religious elements being introduced at New College, a public liberal arts school.

Speir's early efforts to inject religion into the college's proceedings could heighten those concerns, although opening public meetings with a prayer is not unusual. The Sarasota and Manatee county commissions both have prayers at the beginning of their meetings.

"The Supreme Court has permitted government meetings to be opened with prayer, at least under certain circumstances, so long as they are 'solemnizing' and not aggressively 'proselytizing,'" said Notre Dame Law School Professor Richard Garnett.

"This is an area where answers are highly context-dependent, but it seems safe to say that noncoercive prayers before government meetings are often permissible, but not required," Garnett added.

More:New College board member’s Twitter feed: COVID conspiracies and climate-change denial

More:Board member: Turning Sarasota's New College into conservative 'Hillsdale of the south' unlikely

Speir tweeted on Jan. 18 that "I have requested to open our Board of Trustees meeting in prayer." He posted another tweet Sunday saying his prayer request was denied by New College board Chair Mary Ruiz after she consulted with David Smolker, the school's interim general counsel.

"Seems like asking for God’s help is a reasonable thing to do given the oath that we made," Speir wrote of his prayer request in the Jan. 18 tweet. That tweet includes a picture of the official oath of office he signed as a new board member, which includes the words "so help me God."

Speir said in a message to the Herald-Tribune that he was told Ruiz discussed his request with the college's legal counsel "and it was determined it is not allowed." He declined to comment further, saying: "That will be all I say about it at this point."

The Herald-Tribune contacted New College for a response Monday morning and has not received a reply.

More:New board member: New College reforms not about turning school 'into something it is not'

Along with Speir, DeSantis appointed a number of conservative activists and scholars to the New College board. The first board meeting since their appointment is next week.

Speir has accused New College of pushing a "tyrannical ideology."

“It is not right to demand that taxpayers pay for this indoctrination of Florida’s youth into an ideology that is patently anti-western civilization, anti-American, and anti-Florida,” Speir said in previous statement to the Herald-Tribune.

The Herald-Tribune previously reported about Speir's Twitter feed, which includes skeptical comments about climate change and raises concerns about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines.

Information from Herald-Tribune reporters Anne Snabes and Jesse Mendoza was used in this report.