A federal court of appeals recently held that student read invocations at school board meetings are allowed under a very limited exception to the Establishment Clause called the legislative prayer exception. American Humanist Association v. Birdville Independent School District (5th Cir. Mar. 20, 2017).
From 1997 to 2015, the Birdville Independent School District (BISD) has allowed elementary or middle school students to deliver statements at the opening of each board meeting. In some cases, the students read poems or essays, but on occasion, a student read a Christian prayer. In 2015, American Humanist Association (AHA) and a BISD alum Isaiah Smith, filed suit claiming the invocations violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The district court ruled in favor of the school district, finding that the legislative prayer exception applied. AHA and Smith filed separate appeals.
The legislative prayer exception allows prayers to be given at legislative proceedings and town-board meetings. However, as a general rule, prayers in public schools did not fall under the exception. The issue before the court was whether a school board meeting is more like a legislative proceeding or a school activity. In the court’s view, school board meetings (which took place away from school grounds, dealt with administrative issues, and did not involve students as mandatory deliberative participants) were more like legislative proceedings than school activities. As a result, the court of appeals agreed with the district court decision allowing student invocations to be read at school board meetings.
Post Authored by Amanda Riggs & Julie Tappendorf