August 9, 2011 • Vol. XXXV • No. 5
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Court Strikes Down Prayers at School Board Meetings

A federal appeals court has ruled that a Delaware school board’s practice of reciting prayers before a school board meeting is unconstitutional as a violation of the First Amendment's prohibition against government establishment of religion. This ruling of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals is precedential, and covers Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

In Doe v. Indian River School District, two families challenged the school board’s meeting opening prayers, which took place under a formal prayer policy, which called for board members to rotate in leading a prayer or moment of silence to "solemnify" formal meetings. According to the court papers, the policy stated that prayers may be sectarian or non-sectarian, "in the name of a Supreme Being, Jehovah, Jesus Christ, Buddha, Allah," or any other entity. Court papers indicated that the board has had prayer at board meetings since the district was founded in 1969, and that in practice the prayers have almost always been based in Christian concepts.

Unlike Legislative Sessions A federal district court upheld the practice, but the Third Circuit panel of judges said the board's policy and practices cannot be squared with the Establishment Clause that separates church and state. The court said the key question was whether school board meetings and prayers were more like legislative prayers upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1983 case of Marsh v. Chambers, or if they were more like prayer during school and school-sponsored events. In considering the latter, the courts have cited the special nature of the school context and the potential that students may feel coerced into participating in the prayer.

Concluding that “Marsh is ill-suited to this context because the entire purpose and structure of the Indian River School District revolves around public school education,” the panel concluded that prayer at school board meetings should be viewed under the same principles that govern school prayer. 

Noting that a student wishing to comment on school policies or otherwise participate in the decision-making that affects his or her education must attend board meetings, the court stated, “The First Amendment does not require students to give up their right to participate in their educational system or be rewarded for their school-related achievements as a price for dissenting from a state-sponsored religious practice."

Advances Religion Relying on legal principles in school prayer cases, the court found that the board meeting prayer was unconstitutional because it had the primary effect of advancing and endorsing religion with its explicit references to God, Jesus Christ and the Lord. It also found that the practice involved excessive government entanglement in religion because it was a formal part of the board’s activities, recited in official meetings controlled by the board and composed and recited by board members. 

Impacts New Jersey This ruling is binding in New Jersey. In light of this decision, boards of education should not rely on the reasoning in the Marsh v. Chambers case that gave a legislative exception for beginning meetings with prayers. Boards should consult with counsel as to appropriate practices to solemnize board meetings.

Any appeal of the Indian River decision would go before the United States Supreme Court.

 

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