The invocations, or “student expressions,” before school-board meetings that for years in one Texas district have been led by students, can continue, a three-judge appeals court panel ruled.
“Legislative prayer lends gravity to public business, reminds lawmakers to transcend petty differences in pursuit of a higher purpose, and expresses a common aspiration to a just and peaceful society,” the panel from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.
“Although it is possible to imagine a school-board student-expression practice that offends the Establishment Clause, this one, under it specific facts, does not.”
The case was brought by an atheist organization, the American Humanist Association, against the Birdville Independent School District and seven board members.
In a 3-0 decision, the appeals court said the district’s practice of having board meetings open with a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance by one student and an invocation or statement by another student, selected randomly and given no requirements except not to be obscene, is constitutional.
The atheists had lost at the lower court, too, but immediately announced Wednesday they would make certain the case continues.
“The panel’s ruling is unprecedented and directly conflicts with precedent from the other appeals courts that have addressed this issue,” said Monica Miller of the AHA.
She also claimed the ruling violated Supreme Court precedent.
The organization said it was completely dissatisfied with the decision by Judges Jerry Edwin Smith, Edith Clement and Leslie Southwick and would ask for a full-court ruling.
The case alleged the procedures by the school board “continue subjecting students to prayers at school board meetings,” which violates the Constitution because they “endorse religion and coerce impressionable school children to participate in religious exercise.”
Liberty Counsel, which often defends the speech rights of both students and school officials, commended the court.
“The Supreme Court has ruled that prayers at state and local legislative meetings are permissible. The prayer opening a school board meeting is also permissible, as the court of appeals ruled. This is a stinging rebuke to groups that want to cleanse America of prayer. America was founded upon prayer and prayer has been a common practice since the founding. A short prayer does not establish a religion,” said Mat Staver, Liberty Counsel founder and chairman.
Since 1997, the Birdville school board has allowed students, mostly from elementary or middle school, to open board meetings with prayer, often referring to Jesus Christ and inviting audience members to pray. Board members often stand and bow their heads during the invocations.
The court ruled the school board members were protected by qualified immunity. And it found the school board was “more like a legislature” than a classroom, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 decision allowing the town of Greece in upstate New York to start board meetings with prayer.
The AHA and former student Isaiah Smith had sued the district and board members Jack McCarty, Joe D. Tolbert, Brad Greene, Richard Davis, Ralph Kunkel, Cary Hancock and Dolores Webb for Smith’s perceived “affront” when a board meeting began with an invocation.
He charged the district was “favoring religion over nonreligion.”
Smith and the atheists group said they wanted “monetary damages” for the board’s actions.