The U.S. Supreme Court last week declined to hear the appeal of a school board in Delaware, which had its practice of reciting prayers before its public board meetings struck down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia.
The case involved the 8,400-student Indian River school district, 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 nonsectarian, “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, the 3rd Circuit court panel said the board’s policy and practices cannot be squared with the establishment clause.
The 3rd Circuit 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 often 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 court said the board meetings are closer to events such as graduation ceremonies, in which school-sponsored prayers have been held to have a coercive effect on students.
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.
The justices declined the appeal without comment, as they did an appeal involving public prayer at county-commission meetings.
A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2012 edition of Education Week as Justices Decline to Weigh Prayer at Meetings of School Boards