Law & Courts

Justices Decline to Weigh Prayers at School Board Meetings

By Mark Walsh — January 17, 2012 2 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to take up the issue of prayers at school board meetings.

The justices 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.

Prayers before school board meetings are commonplace in the United States, though certainly not universal.

The Delaware 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 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, 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 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.

“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 appeals court said.

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.

In its appeal to the Supreme Court in Indian River School District v. Doe (Case No. 11-569), the school district said the case would present a good vehicle to clarify the law on legislative prayer at the local governmental level.

“The Indian River School Board not only embraced this tradition of legislative prayer, it did so in a manner consistent with the highest ideals of religious pluralism and tolerance,” the appeal stated.

The justices declined the appeal without comment, as they did a separate appeal involving public prayer at county commission meetings.

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