Americans United for Separation of Church and State today demanded that the Orange County 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 a letter sent to the education board’s attorney today, Americans United outlined not only why the 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. This is not a 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 fully participate 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 & 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 their 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.
A copy of Americans United’s letter is available here. It was signed by Luchenitser, AU Legal Director Richard B. Katskee and Madison Legal Fellow Patrick Grubel.
Americans United is a religious freedom advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the nonprofit organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.