NEW ORLEANS — A Texas school board can open its meetings with student-led public prayers without running afoul of the Constitution’s prohibition against government-established religion, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.
The ruling by a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld a lower court ruling dismissing a lawsuit against the Birdville Independent School District. The suit was filed by the American Humanist Association and a graduate of Birdville High School.
The panel said student-led prayers for legislative bodies differ from unconstitutional prayers in public schools.
The panel noted a 2014 Supreme Court ruling allowing prayers at a town council meeting in Greece, New York, and said the prayers at the Birdville school board fall under that “legislative prayer exception.”
“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,” Judge Jerry E. Smith wrote for the panel. “Indeed, the Supreme Court did not take issue with the fact that Town of Greece board members bowed their heads during invocations.”
The opinion noted that the Birdville school board meetings are held in an administration building — not in a school. People attending can enter and leave at any time, including during the prayer. It said the board meetings open with a student-led Pledge of Allegiance and a statement that can include a prayer, although the statements are sometimes secular.
It also noted that no student representatives sit on the board, as in some school districts.
“Although it is possible to imagine a school-board student-expression practice that offends the Establishment Clause, this one, under its specific facts, does not,” Smith wrote.
Smith was nominated to the court by Republican President Ronald Reagan. Also on the panel were two nominees of Republican President George W. Bush: Edith Brown Clement and Leslie Southwick.