December 2016 Church & State - December 2016

Texas School Board Has No Right To Open Meetings With Prayer, AU Argues

  AU admin

A Texas public school district violated the U.S. Constitution when it opened its meetings with official prayers, Americans United and its allies told a federal court recently.

In an October friend-of-the-court brief filed in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a coalition of civil liberties groups said the Birdville Independent School District’s prayer practice “constitutes school-sponsored religious exercises.”

The district, based in Haltom City, had a policy of opening its board meetings with official invocations given by a student on behalf of the district. Frequently, the audience was invited to join in the prayers. The American Humanist Association sued to stop this practice.

Last year the board made some slight tweaks in an attempt to mollify constitutional concerns; namely, students are allowed to sign up to give what is now called a moment of “student expression” rather than an invocation. But little has changed in reality – the “expression” is usually a religious prayer or a poem with religious themes.

A federal court upheld the board’s policy, but that ruling is on appeal.

The brief notes that sponsored prayer at school board meetings is different from prayer before government meetings. Unlike meetings of legislative bodies, students frequently attend school board meetings for various reasons, such as receiving recognition or to perform music. In the case of Birdville meetings, since 2014 students from district schools have been chosen as “student ambassadors” who attend meetings and report back to their peers.

In their brief, the civil liberties groups noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has drawn an important distinction between sponsored prayer at government meetings and sponsored prayer at school board meetings because children are more susceptible to coercive prayer than adults.  

“[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.

In addition to Americans United, the organizations that joined the brief were: American Civil Liberties Union; American Civil Liberties Union of Texas; Anti-Defamation League; Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty; Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, Inc.; Hindu American Foundation; Jewish Social Policy Action Network; Union for Reform Judaism; Central Conference of American Rabbis; and Women of Reform Judaism. (American Humanist Association v. Birdville Independent School District)

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