Dec 10, 2001

A Louisiana law requiring public schools to set aside time each day for spoken prayer by students and teachers violates the constitutional separation of church and state, a federal appeals court ruled today.

In a 3-0 ruling, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans held that the law violates the First Amendment of the Constitution. The decision is a victory for Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, the two groups that brought the challenge to the law.

Americans United and the ACLU filed suit Dec. 3, 1999, on behalf of local parents and children who objected to the school-sanctioned religious worship. The suit challenged the state law, as well as officially sanctioned prayer in the Ouachita Parish public schools.

A federal district court ruled against the religious practices, but Louisiana officials appealed the portion of the ruling dealing with the state law. Today's decision upholds the lower court ruling.

"This decision is an important reminder that government may not meddle in the religious lives of our children," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Public schools are supposed to teach, not preach. It's up to parents to decide what religious instruction their children receive."

The conflict springs from 1999, when the state legislature amended a state law allowing a brief time each day for silent prayer or meditation. The amendment struck the word "silent," thus allowing spoken prayer by both teachers and students.

The state law and intercom prayer in the Ouachita Parish public schools were challenged on behalf of two families within the public school district who oppose the practices, but who have asked to remain anonymous.

Americans United Legal Director Ayesha Khan, who argued the Doe v. Foster case before the 5th Circuit Court, hailed today's decision.

"This is a victory for the schoolchildren of Louisiana and for the principle of religious freedom," Khan said. "At a time in our nation's history when unity is so important, I'm delighted that the court struck down this misguided and divisive law."

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom. The Louisiana ACLU is the state affiliate of the national ACLU, a 300,000-member organization that frequently litigates religious liberty cases.