Appeals Court Unanimously Rules Prayers During Texas School Board’s Meetings Are Constitutional

FORT WORTH, Texas — A federal appeals court has ruled unanimously that prayers presented at board meetings for a Texas school district are constitutional and do not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled 3-0 on Monday that the prayers offered by students during the meetings of the Birdville Independent School District are more like those presented in a legislative body rather than a classroom. It pointed to the nation’s history and longstanding practice of presenting prayer at public events.

“[D]ating from the early nineteenth century, at least eight states had some history of opening prayers at school-board meetings,” Judge Jerry Smith wrote on behalf of the panel on Monday. “And [Supreme Court rulings] show that there was a well-established practice of opening meetings of deliberative bodies with invocations. Such practices date from the First Congress, which suggests that ‘the Framers considered legislative prayer a benign acknowledgement of religion’s role in society.’”

The court also pointed to the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway, which ruled in favor of non-coercive prayers presented during city hall meetings in Greece, New York. It likewise noted that students voluntarily present the prayers—not board members, and rejected the notion it is illegal for members of the board to participate in the invocations by bowing their heads.

“It would be nonsensical to permit legislative prayers but bar the legislative officers for whom they are being primarily recited from participating in the prayers in any way,” Smith wrote. “Indeed, the Supreme Court did not take issue with the fact that Town of Greece board members bowed their heads during invocations.”

And while students or board members may sometimes ask those present to stand during the prayer, “[t]hose polite requests, however, do not coerce prayer,” the court concluded.

As previously reported, the American Humanist Association (AHA) filed suit against the Birdville Independent School District in 2015 on behalf of now 21-year-old Isaiah Smith, who believed that the district was wrongfully endorsing Christianity through the invocations.

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Smith had first made headlines in 2013 when he was suspended from school for ripping pages of Leviticus out of his Bible during Spanish class. As previously reported, Smith was advised that he was causing a disruption to the learning environment by tearing up his Bible in class.

In the AHA suit, Smith said that the prayers made him feel like an outsider at the meetings, which he says he attended as a student and continues to attend as an alumnus.

“Plaintiff Smith considers the school board’s prayers to be divisive and exclusionary, leaving him to conclude that he is unwelcome at school board meetings and a political outsider in his own community,” the suit explained.

U.S. District Judge John McBryde, nominated to the bench by then-President George H.W. Bush, ruled in favor of Smith in August. The district appealed, and on Monday, the Fifth Circuit overturned McBryde’s ruling.

“[I]n Marsh v. Chambers, a member of the Nebraska legislature sued state officials, claiming that the practice of opening each session with a chaplain’s prayer violated the Establishment Clause. The court upheld the practice without applying any of the conventional tests, observing that ‘[t]he opening of sessions of legislative and
other deliberative public bodies with prayer is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country,'” the unanimous circuit court noted.

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