October 2020 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

Attorneys with Americans United have demanded that the Orange County, Calif., Board of Education respect the religious freedom of students, families and staff and end its unconstitutional practice of including religious invocations during public board meetings. 

In an Aug. 28 letter sent to the education board’s attorney, Americans United outlined not only why the board’s current prayer practice is unconstitutional but also how proposed amendments to the board’s invocation policy further undermine the First Amendment rights of students and other members of the Orange County community.  

The board proposes to exclude, to “every extent possible,” children and conscientious objectors from the prayer portion of meetings. As AU pointed out, this is not an appropriate solution. Not only does the board fail to guarantee that children will not be exposed to coercive religious content, but it forces children, employees and others into the untenable position of either engaging in a public protest or grudgingly participating in religious activities that may conflict with their personal beliefs.

Additionally, no students or community members should be forced to leave a public meeting and be denied the opportunity to participate fully in democratic processes of their local government. 

“The Orange County Board of Education’s first priority should be educating children – not promoting board members’ religious beliefs,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate vice president and associate legal director at Americans United. “Incorporating prayers or any other religious content into a public school board meeting is a clear violation of religious freedom. Orange County students, families and staff should not be forced to choose between remaining true to their personal religious beliefs and participating in the decision-making process of their own public schools.” 

While courts have permitted state legislatures and municipal councils to include invocations at their meetings as long as they don’t proselytize or discriminate, courts have consistently concluded that invocations at public school board meetings are unconstitutional. 

AU’s letter noted that the Orange County Board of Education should be well aware that its invocation policy violates both the U.S. and California Constitutions. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals – whose decisions are the law in California – in 2018 affirmed that invocations at public school board meetings are unconstitutional. That case involved Chino Valley Unified School District, but the Orange County Board of Education unsuccessfully tried to intervene in the case.

AU’s letter was signed by Luchenitser, AU Legal Director Richard B. Katskee and Madison Legal Fellow Patrick Grubel.