Written by Don Byrd

The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday declined to hear the plaintiff’s appeal in American Humanist Association v. Birdville Independent School District, ending a closely watched government prayer dispute. The denial leaves in place a controversial 5th Circuit ruling earlier this year upholding a Texas school district’s policy of opening board meetings with student-led invocations.

The appeals court rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments that because the presence of school children at board meetings raises the likelihood of improper coercion, the invocations should be evaluated like school prayer cases. Instead, the court held, the disputes are more akin to legislative prayer cases, where such policies have been found lawful.

Why is this case controversial? Because challenges to school board meeting invocations have typically been analyzed as school prayer cases. The BJC filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the 5th Circuit in the case opposing the school district’s prayer policy, arguing that it amounts to school prayer forbidden by the Constitution.

The Baptist Standard report quotes Holly Hollman discussing the case:

“Public schools have a responsibility to protect the religious liberty rights of all students at all school-sponsored events, including school board meetings,” said Holly Hollman, general counsel with the Baptist Joint Committee.

“The Birdville ISD school board and the 5th Circuit are failing to respect the importance of voluntary prayer and the separation of church and state. Government entities have no business acting as worship leaders for public school children.”

In light of the Supreme Court’s denial of the plaintiff’s appeal petition, the invocation policies of other school boards, along with the church-state challenges that result, will be important to watch going forward. 

Meanwhile, another legislative prayer case petition is before the Supreme Court. Lund v. Rowan County asks whether a county commission’s policy of opening meetings with prayers directed by the commissioners themselves violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Stay tuned.