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Appeals Court Strikes Down School Board Prayer Policy in California District

A federal appeals court on Wednesday struck down a California school district's policy of inviting clergy members or others to lead prayers before its school board meetings.

The ruling involving the 28,000-student Chino Valley Unified School District adds to the disagreement among federal appeals court circuits about school board prayers, potentially making the case one that might interest the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The board's prayer policy and practice violate the establishment clause," said a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, in reference to the First Amendment's prohibition against government establishment of religion.

The board's invocations are "not the sort of solemnizing and unifying prayer, directed at lawmakers themselves and conducted before an audience of mature adults free from coercive pressures to participate, that the legislative-prayer tradition contemplates," the court said in a unsigned "per curiam" opinion in Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Chino Valley Unified School District. "Instead, these prayers typically take place before groups of schoolchildren whose attendance is not truly voluntary."

The Chino board has included prayers since at least 2010, court papers say, but in 2013 it adopted a policy calling for clergy members with congregations within the district to lead prayers. If no clergy member is available for a given meeting, the board member may solicit a volunteer from the audience or the board itself, which has five adult members and one student representative.

Court papers say the prayers delivered at Chino board meetings have overwhelmingly been Christian, with board members sometimes amplifying Christian thoughts and beliefs. At a 2014 meeting, the school board president "urged everyone who does not know Jesus Christ to go and find Him," the appeals court said.

At another meeting, that same board president thanked the minister who had delivered the invocation "for your serving the Lord Jesus Christ and serving all of our students because we do need your prayers [on a] daily basis," court papers say.

The prayer policy and practices were challenged under the establishment clause by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wis.-based group that has been increasingly active in challenging religious practices at public schools.

A federal district judge ruled against the policy and issued an injunction barring the board from conducting or permitting prayers at its meetings. In its July 25 decision affirming the district court, the 9th Circuit court panel held that prayers at school board meetings were in a different class from the legislative prayers upheld by the Supreme Court in Marsh v. Chambers, a 1983 case involving state legislative invocations, and Town of Greece v. Galloway, a 2014 decision that upheld prayers at a town council meeting.

"We find that the practice of prayer at Chino Valley Board meetings does not fit within the tradition long followed in Congress and the state legislatures," the court said. 

"Unlike a session of Congress or a state legislature, or a meeting of a town board, the Chino Valley Board meetings function as extensions of the educational experience of the district's public schools," the 9th Circuit panel continued. "The presence of large numbers of children and adolescents, in a setting under the control of public-school authorities, is inconsonant with the legislative-prayer tradition."

The panel recognized that three other federal appeals court have ruled on school board prayers, with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, striking down such policies in decisions issued before the Supreme Court's decision in the Town of Galloway case. In 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, upheld a Texas school district's policy of permitting students to lead prayers. The Supreme Court last November declined to take up an appeal of that decision.

The 9th Circuit panel noted that there was no student board member on the Texas board in the 5th Circuit case, while there is a student representative at every Chino Valley board meeting.

The panel also upheld the district court's broad injunction against the policy, rejecting the school board's arguments that the prohibition against prayers at its meetings would require board members to censor speech protected by the First Amendment.

"The only speech that [the injunction] requires the board members to refrain from engaging in or permitting others to engage in is speech that would cause the district to violate the establishment clause," the court said.

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