Court Upholds Prayer at School Board Meetings, Overlooking Their Judicial and Executive Functions That Suggest a Different Result
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in American Humanist Association v. Birdville Independent School District has upheld a First Amendment challenge to student prayer at school board meetings. The court offered this summary of the facts:
BISD’s board holds monthly meetings in the District Administration Building, which is not located within a school. The meetings include sessions open to the public. Attendees are free to enter and leave at any time. Most attendees are adults, though students frequently attend school-board meetings to receive awards or for other reasons, such as brief performances by school bands and choirs. Since 1997, two students have opened each session—with one leading the Pledge of Allegiance and the Texas pledge and the other delivering some sort of statement, which can include an invocation. Those student presenters, typically either elementary- or middle-school students,2 are given one minute. BISD officials do not direct them on what to say but tell them to make sure their statements are relevant to school-board meetings and not obscene or otherwise inappropriate. At a number of meetings, the student speakers have presented poems or read secular statements. But according to AHA and Smith, they are usually an invocation in the form of a prayer, with speakers frequently referencing “Jesus” or “Christ.” AHA and Smith claim that sometimes the prayers are directed at the audience through the use of phrases such as “let us pray,” “stand for the prayer,” or “bow your heads.”
From 1997 through February 2015, the student-led presentations were called “invocations” and were delivered by students selected on merit. In March 2015, in an apparent response to AHA’s concerns about the invocations, BISD began referring to them as “student expressions” and providing disclaimers that the students’ statements do not reflect BISD’s views. BISD began randomly selecting, from a list of volunteers, the students who would deliver the expressions.
The court recognized that two different lines of precedent potentially controlled the case--one dealing with legislative prayer and the other with school prayer.
Like [the legislative precedent], this dispute is about the constitutionality of permitting religious invocations at the opening, ceremonial phase of a local deliberative body’s public meetings. But like [the school prayer Education Law Prof Blog: