U.S. Supreme Court to Weigh Prayers at Municipal Meetings

By Mark Walsh — May 20, 2013 3 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Monday to take up the constitutionality of prayers before municipal meetings, a question with potential implications for school boards across the country.

Meanwhile, the justices once again did not act on a pending appeal dealing with the legality of holding public high school graduation ceremonies at a church with many visible Christian symbols. The court has privately weighed the appeal in Elmbrook School District v. Doe (12-755) six times without taking any action on the closely watched case.

Also on Monday, the court refused to hear the appeal of the Kansas City, Mo., school district in a dispute over the diversion of state money to independent charter schools that the district believes belongs to it under a longstanding desegregation consent decree.

In the municipal prayer case, Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway (No. 12-696), the justices will review a federal appeals court ruling that the New York state community violated the First Amendment’s prohibition against government establishment of religion by allowing private citizens to open town board meetings with a prayer.

The town has allowed volunteers to lead prayers since 1999. It says in court papers that it does not steer the citizens’ choices in any direction and has had many faiths represented.

But those who challenged the practice say the town has relied primarily on Christian ministers, who often have elaborated on tenets of Christianity and celebrated the birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

A federal district court upheld the town’s practice under the Supreme Court’s 1983 decision in Marsh v. Chambers, which upheld state legislative prayers.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, reversed, ruling last year that the establishment clause is violated “where the overwhelming predominance of prayers offered are associated, often in an explicitly sectarian way, with a particular creed, and where the town ... conveys the impression that town officials themselves identify with the sectarian prayers and that residents in attendance are expected to participate in them.”

The town appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that there was a split on federal courts of appeals as to whether municipal prayers should be analyzed under the “historical” test of Marsh or the government endorsement of religion test from another Supreme Court decision, County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, in 1989.

Although school board meetings are akin to town or city council meetings in many respects, some courts that have weighed school board prayer policies have taken account of the unique factor that such boards are closely associated with education and that schoolchildren are often present for the proceedings.

In 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, struck down the board-meeting prayers of a Delaware school district, holding that meetings are more like other school events than like legislative sessions.

In 1999, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, reached a similar conclusion in striking down the policy of the Cleveland board of education on prayer at school board meetings.

The Greece, N.Y., case will be argued during the court’s next term.

Consent Decree Battle

In the Kansas City, Mo., case turned down by the Supreme Court on Monday, the school system was battling a state panel, the Missouri Board of Fund Commissioners, over whether some $6 million-plus in interest would have to be diverted to charter schools in the city.

The school district argued that the money belonged in its coffers for regular public schools under the terms of its desegregation decree, but a state appeals court sided with the state panel.

The justices declined to hear the school board’s appeal in School District of Kansas City, Mo. v. Missouri Board of Fund Commissioners (No. 12-1123).

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