Atheists Ask Supreme Court to Rule on Whether School Board Prayers Are Legal

The American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center is asking the Supreme Court to hear a case that would have massive repercussions for church/state separation at public school board meetings.

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it involves the Birdville Independent School District in Texas, which has a long history of promoting Christianity. They’ve punished a student for tearing pages from a Bible (and then carrying around that ripped Bible). They’ve sponsored religious Baccalaureate ceremonies. They’ve hosted religious assemblies. There are religious symbols in classrooms. And their school board meetings include religious invocations from students, some as young as six.

It’s that last bit that the AHA is focused on this lawsuit. The AHA’s Executive Director Roy Speckhardt said last year that, “By opening meetings with prayers, the Birdville school board is sending the message that they favor Christianity over other religions, and that non-Christian community members are unwelcome.” Keep in mind that students are often required to attend these meetings “for school credit, to receive recognition for academic or extracurricular achievement, to perform for the Board, or to resolve disciplinary matters.”

Last August, U.S. District Judge John McBryde said those prayers were legal. Because the law already permits religious invocations, he argued, these student-led invocations were fine. The AHA rejected that thinking, however, saying in an appeal that there was a difference between invocations offered by adults at city council meetings (what Greece v. Galloway was all about) and prayers at a school board meeting that directly involve children.

AHA attorney Monica Miller said to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that the difference was in the “power imbalance” at these meetings and the idea that these mostly Christian invocations suggested a government endorsement of religion. She added that Greece v. Galloway didn’t apply in this situation because “students are far more susceptible to religious coercion.”

Unfortunately, the judges didn’t agree. The Appeals Court said that the meetings took place in a separate administrative building, not a school. As if that should make a difference. They also said there were no students on the school board… so this couldn’t possibly be coercive because the intended audience was the adult members of the school board.

It was appalling to hear those excuses being made in support of prayer at school board meetings. The AHA asked the entire Fifth Circuit to reconsider the case back in April… but that plea was rejected. That’s why the AHA is now appealing one last time — to the Supreme Court.

“The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that school districts may not subject their students to prayer and has never made any exception to this rule for school board meetings,” said Monica Miller, senior counsel for the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “Forcing students to choose between attending board meetings in order to receive school credit or recognition for academic achievements and not attending only to avoid personally offensive religious rituals runs afoul longstanding constitutional principles.”

“The lower court’s decision failed to appreciate the coercive pressures non-religious students face when a prayer is recited in a school-controlled environment consisting of administrators and peers,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. “Religious minorities in Texas and elsewhere are relying on the Supreme Court to right this wrong.”

This is a long shot. The Supreme Court only hears a small percentage of the cases they’re asked to decide. And given the 5-4 ruling in Greece v. Galloway in support of legislative prayer, it’s asking a lot for Justice Anthony Kennedy, the likely swing vote, to rule in the other direction, though the AHA is hoping he sees the difference between the situation in Greece and this case.

But if this decision is allowed to stand — because the Supreme Court votes that way or because they refuse to hear the appeal at all — you can bet school districts across the country will start having students deliver invocation prayers at meetings, opening the door to even more legal challenges. (What’s going to happen when a young Satanist asks to speak? What happens if student speakers are censored?)

You can read the AHA’s petition right here.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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