May 2017 Church & State - May 2017

New Hearing Sought In Case Of Texas School Board Opening Meetings With Prayers

  AU admin

A federal appeals court in March ruled a Texas school board can open its meetings with student-led prayers.

Isaiah Smith, a Birdville Independent School District graduate, and the American Humanist Association (AHA) filed a lawsuit objecting to the Haltom City-based district’s practice of having students open board meetings with invocations that are predominantly Christian and encouraging the audience to participate.

The AHA said Smith felt “isolated and excluded by the school board’s practice of promoting religion in the public sphere.”

Americans United was joined by several allied organizations in filing a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the plaintiffs. AU argued that prayers at school board meetings are problematic because students, who are more susceptible to coercion, are often in attendance.

“[U]nlike legislatures, which consist of principally and focus on adults, school boards deal with the public schools and public-school students – and they often include students as members as well as meeting attendees and honorees,” the brief asserted.

A lower court had ruled in the district’s favor, but the AHA appealed the case to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

A three-member panel of the appeals court ruled in the district’s favor. The court seemed untroubled by the fact that attendees of the meeting were asked to take part in prayer.

“Occasionally, BISD board members and other school officials will ask the audience, including any students in the audience, to stand for the invocation. Those polite requests, however, do not coerce prayer,” wrote Judge Jerry E. Smith.

The AHA announced it would ask for an en banc hearing to have the full bench of 5th Circuit judges rehear the case, American Humanist Association v. Birdville Independent School District.

“We continue this case to preserve the rights of students everywhere,” said Monica Miller, senior counsel for the group. “The school board’s practice of allowing student-led prayer violates longstanding and important principles of church-state separation.”

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