Texas School Board Has No Right to Open Meetings with Prayer, All Argues

Church & State, December 2016 | Go to article overview

Texas School Board Has No Right to Open Meetings with Prayer, All Argues


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. …

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