School Board Prayers Are Illegal, Court Rules

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Public prayers before school board meetings violate the First Amendment's prohibition against government establishment of religion, a federal appeals court has ruled.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, based in Cincinnati, ruled 2-1 against the Cleveland board of education's practice of opening its meetings with a prayer by a minister. The board included such prayers from 1992 to 1995, when a new board dropped the practice.

The court said in its March 18 decision that school board prayer fell between the contours of two U.S. Supreme Court rulings. In the 1983 case of Marsh v. Chambers, the high court upheld the Nebraska legislature's practice of opening its sessions with a prayer by a chaplain. In the 1992 case of Lee v. Weisman, the court struck down clergy-led prayers at the graduation ceremonies of a Rhode Island school district.

The appeals court concluded that prayers before a school board meeting should be prohibited under Lee because the meetings are an integral part of the school system, and students are regular participants in them.

"These meetings are conducted on school property by school officials, and are attended by students who actively and regularly participate in the discussions of school-related matters," the majority opinion by U.S. Circuit Judge Ronald L. Gilman said. "This reality supports our conclusion that the logic behind the school-prayer line of cases is more applicable to the school board's meetings than is the logic behind the legislative-prayer exception in Marsh."

The 6th Circuit covers Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee.

'Adult Activity'

There are no firm figures on how many of the nation's 15,000 school boards open their meetings with a prayer. The practice is common in pockets of the South and elsewhere.

"I don't think it is prevalent across the entire United States," said Julie A. Underwood, the general counsel of the National School Boards Association.

The ruling was surprising, she said, because most school-law experts have assumed that prayers at school board meetings would pass muster under the Marsh ruling, which held that "the opening of sessions of legislative and other deliberative public bodies with prayer is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country."

"We usually think of a school board meeting as more of an adult activity," Ms. Underwood said. "This ruling really looks at it from the perspective of a school activity."

The Cleveland board started opening its meetings with prayers in early 1992. The then-president of the school board said in court papers that the goal was to reduce the "strife and acrimony" that had dominated meetings before that time. The prayers were typically delivered by Christian clergy members.

In 1992, Sarah E. Coles, then a 9th grader, attended a board meeting to receive an award for her outstanding performance on a college-entrance test. She said in court papers she was surprised and shocked by the prayers.

"I couldn't understand a board of education having prayers, when the schools teach students about the separation of church and state," she wrote in an essay in the Cleveland Plain Dealer that year.

"I thought, what if I were a Buddhist or a Muslim? How would it feel to be invited to a meeting, only to be offended by your host?" she wrote.

The prayers were also challenged by Gene Tracy, a mathematics teacher in the district.

Student Involvement

A federal magistrate recommended that the prayers be struck down, but a federal district judge in Cleveland upheld the practice in 1996.

The appeals court reversed the district judge in its ruling this month. The majority said the Supreme Court's ruling in Marsh upholding legislative prayers was an exception to a long line of cases barring government-endorsed religious expression.

Students attend board meetings to receive recognition or challenge policies, and the Cleveland board has a student representative, the majority noted.

"School board meetings are ... not the equivalent of galleries in a legislature where spectators are incidental to the work of the public body," the majority said. "Students are directly involved in the discussion and debate at school board meetings."

In his dissent, U.S. Circuit Judge James L. Ryan said school board meetings "are light-years away from a classroom full of elementary or secondary school students."

"The Cleveland board of education is a 'deliberative public body,' " he said, referring to the language in Marsh. "Therefore, there is no constitutional bar to opening sessions of the [board] with prayer."

The school board last week was weighing whether to appeal to the full 6th Circuit Court.

Vol. 18, Issue 29, Page 3

Published in Print: March 31, 1999, as School Board Prayers Are Illegal, Court Rules
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