September 2007 Church & State | People & Events

A sharply divided federal appeals court has dismissed a lawsuit challenging sectarian prayers before local school board meetings in Louisiana, holding that the people who brought the case don’t have the right to sue.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, ruled 8-7 July 26 that the lawsuit against the Tangipahoa Parish School Board should be dismissed. (Counties in Louisiana are called parishes.)

An anonymous family, identified in court documents as the Does, challenged the practice of allowing school board members to choose ministers, parents or others to open meetings with prayers. The invocations have often been Christian in nature.

Two courts struck down the board’s prayer policy, but this new ruling vacates those opinions and means the challenge may have to be mounted again.

The court majority said the family that filed the lawsuit could not prove they had actually attended meetings and heard the prayers.

“The question is whether there is proof in the record that Doe or his sons were exposed to, and may thus claim to have been injured by, invocations given at any Tangipahoa Parish School Board meeting,” wrote Judge Edith H. Jones for the majority in Doe v. Tangipahoa Parish School Board.

Jones pointed out that the case may be re-filed by plaintiffs who can prove they heard the prayers.

The Doe family, represented by the Louisiana ACLU, asserts that they did attend the meetings.

Dissenting Judge Rhesa Hawkins Barksdale accused the majority of misapplying the law as it relates to “standing” – the right to sue.