A Delaware school board’s practice of reciting prayers before public board meetings is unconstitutional, a federal appeals court has ruled.
The unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, comes at a time of renewed attention to prayers in the public square. Prayers before city council and county board meetings have come under greater legal scrutiny, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s decision to lead a prayer rally this past weekend raised concerns among civil libertarians.
Prayers before school board meetings are commonplace in the United States, though certainly not everywhere.
The 3rd Circuit case involves the 8,400-student Indian River school district in Delaware, which has had prayers at its board meetings since its founding in 1969, court papers say. In 2004, the district formalized its board meeting prayer policy, which calls for board members to rotate in leading a prayer or moment of silence to “solemnify” formal meetings. The policy says 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 say that in practice, prayers have almost always been Christian.
Two families challenged the board prayers as a violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition against government establishment of religion. A federal district court upheld the practice. But in its Aug. 5 decision in Doe v. Indian River School District, the 3rd Circuit court panel said the board’s policy and practices cannot be squared with the establishment clause.
The court said the key question was whether the school board’s meetings and prayers were closer to the legislative prayers upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1983 case of Marsh v. Chambers, or more like other school events in which the high court’s cases have limited school-sponsored prayers.
The court noted that students are frequently present at board meetings, including student government representatives who regularly advise the Indian River board, as well as academic and sports team members who are recognized by the board.
The 3rd Circuit concluded that the board meetings are closer to other school events, such as graduation ceremonies, in which school-sponsored prayers have been held to have a coercive effect on students.
“Regardless of whether the board is a deliberative or legislative body, we conclude 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 opinion says. “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.”
The 3rd Circuit decision covers Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The court noted that one other federal appeals court has addressed prayers before school board meetings. In a 1999 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, held that prayers before board meetings in Cleveland were barred by the establishment clause.
While some courts have extended Marsh to permit prayers before city council and county board meetings, the educational emphasis of school boards distinguishes them from those other local bodies, the 3rd Circuit court said.
The court closed its opinion by quoting an observation from the Supreme Court’s 1962 decision striking down official prayer in the New York state schools, Engel v. Vitale.
"[I]t is neither sacrilegious nor antireligious to say that each separate government in this country should stay out of the business of writing or sanctioning official prayers and leave that purely religious function to the people themselves,” the high court said in that case.
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.