Written by Don Byrd

Earlier this week, the American Humanist Association (AHA) filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its appeal in a case involving opening invocations at a school board meeting. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in March that Texas’ Birdville School District practice of opening board meetings with a prayer given by a student is constitutional. 

As I posted when that decision was released, courts typically treat prayer at school board meetings like school prayer cases, where the likely presence of school children raises the possibility of coercion, and not like legislative prayer cases. As such, prayer at school board meetings has faced more restrictive scrutiny than prayer opening legislative sessions or other government meetings.

In the Birdville decision, however, the Fifth Circuit treated the dispute like any other legislative prayer case, and found the policy does not violate the separation of church and state. “The presence of students at board meetings does not transform this into a school-prayer case,” the court noted.

In its petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, the AHA argues that the Fifth Circuit’s decision “directly conflicts” with the high court’s holdings that its legislative prayer rulings do not apply in the public school context. Here is an excerpt from the petition:

Because students participating in school board meetings, under the supervision of school officials, are no less susceptible to coercion than students merely attending football games, students attending such meetings should be entitled to the same constitutional protections as students attending any other school function.

You can read a press release from the AHA here.

Meanwhile, a recent legislative prayer decision from the 4th Circuit, finding a prayer policy unconstitutional, will likely be appealed to the Supreme Court, and a 6th Circuit legislative prayer ruling is expected later this year. The Supreme Court could conceivably take up one or more of these cases to further clarify its position on the limits of government-sponsored prayer, just a few years removed from its landmark ruling in Greece v. Galloway.

For more, see the Baptist Joint Committee’s resource page on Greece v. Galloway.