Written by Don Byrd

A panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the practice by the California’s Chino Valley Unified School District of opening board meetings with prayer violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution and is therefore unconstitutional. Because the board includes a student representative who is present at every meeting, the court ruled, and because of “religious preaching” that takes place at some meetings, the Chino Valley practice does not rest within the historical tradition of permissible legislative prayer.

The court emphasized that the threats to the Establishment Clause are heightened where, like here, school children  – who are vulnerable to potential coercion – are often involved in the meetings. 

Here is an excerpt from the opinion:

The Board’s meetings are not solely a venue for policymaking, they are also a site of academic and extracurricular activity and an adjudicative forum for student discipline. Consequently, many members of the audience— and active participants in the meetings—are children and adolescents whose attendance is not truly voluntary and whose relationship with the Board is unequal. 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 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.

[L]egislators and constituents hold equal status as adult members of the political community, which means that in the ordinary course of events constituents may feel free to exit or voice dissent in response to a prayer at a legislative session. Minors in the school district essentially lack those options. For student attendees, then, the schoolboard meetings in which the prayer occurs, and the relationship between students and the Board, lack the democratic hallmarks present in legislative sessions and in constituents’ relationship with the legislature.

Because the challenges of a school-related setting are so different from those in a legislature, the court found the legislative prayer line of cases inapplicable. Instead, the court applied the three-prong Lemon test and found the lack of a secular purpose to the practice of opening board meetings with prayer.

The 5th Circuit last year upheld a school board’s practice of opening prayers, and found that the legislative prayer analysis is appropriate even for school board meetings. In this case, however, the 9th Circuit pointed to the fact that a student representative sits on the board, unlike in the 5th Circuit case.

The court’s ruling affirms a lower court’s opinion, which ordered a halt to the prayer practice. The Los Angeles Times has more in its coverage of the case and this decision.