PHILADELPHIA (ABP) – A federal appeals court ruled Aug. 5 that a Delaware school board’s practice of opening meetings with prayer is unconstitutional.
Reversing a lower-court judgment, the United States 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Indian River School District’s policy allowing board members to open meetings with prayer unconstitutionally promoted Christianity over other religions and excessively entangled church and state.
The school board argued the prayers are legal citing a 1983 Supreme Court ruling recognizing a long tradition of using prayer to “solemnize” public gatherings. A federal appeals court in North Carolina recently viewed a county commission’s prayer policy as an example of “legislative” prayer but found it unconstitutional because it unfairly promoted Christianity.
The Philadelphia-based 3rd Circuit, however, said the Delaware school board’s meetings were more like a graduation ceremony than a session of Congress. While not technically mandatory, the court said the school board encouraged student participation with practices like awards ceremonies, color guards from school JROTC groups and inclusion of student-government representatives.
Applying a different legal standard than the North Carolina court, the 3rd Circuit said the prayers violate a 1992 Supreme Court decision that disallowed clergy-led blessings at graduation ceremonies, which are technically voluntary but so significant that a student might feel compelled to attend. Subsequent rulings also restricted prayers at less-compulsory extracurricular activities like football games.
The court reasoned that the"entire purpose and structure" of the school district revolved around public education.
"Students wishing to comment on school policies or otherwise participate in the decision-making that affects his or her education must attend these meetings," the court ruled. "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 U.S. Supreme Court first ruled against prayer in public schools in 1962, followed a year later by a ruling that forbade daily Bible reading. Since the 1980s courts have judged Establishment Clause cases based on three criteria: whether a government’s practice has a “secular purpose,” its primary purpose is to advance religion or it creates excessive entanglement between government and religion.
Using that standard, the court said the Indian River prayer policy “rises above the level of interaction between church and state that the Establishment Clause permits.”
The case stemmed from a lawsuit originally filed in 2005 by a Jewish family claiming they were harassed after speaking out against religious practices including prayers at graduations and board meetings. They claimed their daughter’s graduation was ruined when she, the only Jewish person in her class, had to listen to a minister pray in Jesus’ name. Her sixth-grade brother claimed he was called “Jew boy” and told that he killed Christ and that he removed pins holding his yarmulke when the family shopped at Wal-Mart fearing someone might snatch it from his head.
Because of the experience, the family sold its home, moved and enrolled their son in a private school. Most of the case was settled in 2008, but the issue of the school board’s prayer policy was left unresolved for a second set of parents who joined the case after it was originally filed.
Bob Allen is managing editor of Associated Baptist Press.