Students can lead prayers at school board meetings

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has ruled that a school board’s practice of opening a meeting with a student-led prayer does not offend the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

In a case that came out of the Birdville Independent School District based in Haltom City, Texas, part of which was formerly called Birdville, the American Humanist Association and one of its current members, Isaiah Smith, a graduate of BISD schools, sued the school district. He said when he attended a board meeting in December 2014, he felt affronted by a prayer that school board members had invited a current student to say and that it meant BISD was “favoring religion over nonreligion.”

But the Fifth Circuit panel said opening public legislative sessions with a prayer was permitted under the Constitution’s First Amendment.

BISD’s board holds monthly meetings in the District Administration Building, which is not located within a school. The meetings include sessions open to the public. Attendees are free to enter and leave at any time. … Since 1997, two students have opened each session—with one leading the Pledge of Allegiance and the Texas pledge and the other delivering some sort of statement, which can include an invocation. … BISD answered that the student-led invocations either qualify as private speech, satisfy the conventional Establishment Clause tests, or fit within the legislative-prayer exception to those tests.

Both the district court and the Fifth Circuit said the prayers constituted legislative prayer, thus satisfying one of the main defenses for using religious speech at public ceremonies or functions.

In a recent case, Town of Greece, the Supreme Court said prayers could be delivered at town council meetings, as long as those prayers didn’t “denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion.” In other words, the content of the prayer is the key to figuring out whether it’s allowed under the Constitution in cases of legislative prayer. It must be noted that students never did anything wrong in their prayers, and the lawsuit didn’t make that claim.

However, the Supreme Court also ruled that the legislative prayer exception doesn’t completely apply in schools. In the 1992 case of Lee v Weisman, the Supreme Court ruled that “there are heightened concerns with protecting freedom of conscience from subtle coercive pressure in the elementary and secondary public schools” and that “prayer exercises in public schools carry a particular risk” of unconstitutional coercion.

Children are impressionable, in other words, and when teachers, principals, school board members, or other adults talk about God, it’s more like preaching conversion than it is reminding lawmakers and policymakers to be mindful that they are serving a higher purpose and that petty differences should be cast aside in service of a greater good.

What the court had to determine here is whether the prayer was closer to legislative prayer, directed at the members of the school board, or school prayer, directed at impressionable students. The court noted that most of the attendees at school board meetings were adults, and they were not compelled to be present at any time.

That finding of fact steered both the district court and the Fifth Circuit to conclude that what was going on at BISD meetings was closer to legislative prayer than to school prayer.

A school board is more like a legislature than a school classroom or event. The BISD board is a deliberative body, charged with overseeing the district’s public schools, adopting budgets, collecting taxes, conducting elections, issuing bonds, and other tasks that are undeniably legislative. …

Other court decisions have concluded that school board meetings aren’t like legislative sessions and are more closely tied to school functions than to those of lawmakers and policymakers. But the Fifth Circuit disagreed, and any higher ruling would have to come from the US Supreme Court, which isn’t likely to weigh in, given the consistent application of its previous cases.

About the Author

Paul Katula

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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