Court OKs Nondenominational Prayers at City Council Meetings

By Mark Walsh — July 23, 2008 2 min read
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And that may have implications for prayers at school board meetings, in my view.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., upheld a policy requiring that prayers delivered at the beginning of meetings of the Fredericksburg, Va., city council be nondenominational.

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor served on the panel by designation, and she wrote the opinion for a unanimous court.

“The restriction that prayers be nonsectarian in nature is designed to make the prayers accessible to people who come from a variety of backgrounds, not to exclude or disparage a particular faith,” Justice O’Connor said in Turner v. City Council of Fredericksburg. “The council’s decision to open its legislative meetings with nondenominational prayers does not violate the Establishment Clause.”

The city council allowed only its own members to take turns delivering the prayers, not any outside ministers or community members. The prayer policy was challenged by a city council member who is also a Baptist minister and wished to close his prayers in the name of Jesus Christ.

Justice O’Connor treated prayers at a city council meeting as akin to the legislative prayers upheld by the Supreme Court in 1983 in Marsh v. Chambers.

I know this case has potential significance for school boards because I have attended school board meetings across the nation that have included prayers, including those delivered by board members and those offered by guest clergy members or others from the community.

The significant legal question is whether prayers at school board meetings are “legislative prayer” of the type upheld in Marsh and the city council case, or whether board meetings are more like school. If courts consider board meetings akin to a school event, that raises some of the First Amendment concerns about compelling students to hear prayers, as in the graduation prayers struck down in Lee v. Weisman.

The high court has never specifically addressed the constitutionality of prayers at school board meetings.

In 1999, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, in Coles v. Cleveland Board of Education, held that school board meetings were more like school, because of the frequent presence of students and other factors, and that prayers at such sessions were an unconstitutional government establishment of religion.

Meanwhile, in Tangipahoa Parish, La., a lawsuit challenging that school system’s latest policy permitting local ministers to deliver school board prayers is being challenged in U.S. District Court. The ACLU of Louisiana has this press release and this amended complaint from February. The Alliance Defense Fund, which is helping defend the school system, has this press release and this document answering the suit.

In an earlier version of the suit against the Tangipahoa Parish school board, which was eventually tossed out on an issue of legal standing, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, issued this 2006 opinion, that discusses at length some of the legal issues surrounding school board prayers. But I assume the current lawsuit will eventually get back to the 5th Circuit.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.