The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This clause was motivated by the Framers’ experience with state-sponsored religious persecution and is thought to serve two purposes: (1) allowing individuals to express themselves according to the dictates of their own conscience; and (2) preventing the government from acting “to make belief — whether theistic or nontheistic, religious or nonreligious — relevant to an individual’s membership” within the political community. Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Chino (9th Cir. 2018).
In light of this purpose, courts express “heightened concerns with protecting freedom of conscience from subtle coercive pressure in the elementary and secondary public schools.” American Humanist Association v. McCarty (5th Cir. 2017). School children are in the process of developing their own beliefs and learning to think for themselves — they are far more susceptible to pressure to conform to social norms and expectations. “The Constitution decrees that religion must be a private matter for the individual, the family, and the institutions of private choice,” and therefore religious opining by those with authority over impressionable adolescents in a mandatory secular school has been deemed unacceptable in the eyes of the Supreme Court. Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971).
The relationship between Church and State is not one of total separation, but the Supreme Court has carved out certain exceptions to this Constitutional prohibition. Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014). Here, a resident challenged the practice of the town board’s practice of opening its monthly meetings with a prayer from an invited clergy member. Writing for a five-justice majority, Justice Kennedy writes: “Legislative prayer lends gravity to public business, reminds lawmakers to transcend petty differences in pursuit of higher purpose and expresses a common aspiration to a just and peaceful society.” The Court affirmed that the Establishment Clause was never meant to prohibit the longstanding tradition of legislative prayer. Despite the fact that some audience members were offended by the prayer, the Court found that the primary audience consisted of the board members who governed the town, and therefore, opening the board meeting with a prayer was permissible. The Court did not limit its ruling, however, leading to many questions as to how far this “legislative prayer” doctrine could extend.
Is the opening of a public school board meeting with a prayer or invocation permissible as an extension of the “legislative prayer” doctrine, or is it an unconstitutional entanglement of Church and State?
The Fifth and Ninth Circuits, in particular, have diverged on the issue of whether school boards should be permitted to invoke religious doctrine in meetings. The difference in opinion stems from an overall uncertainty as to whether school board meetings are viewed more as school-sanctioned events or legislative sessions.
In American Humanist Association v. McCarty (5th Cir. 2017), the AHA challenged the actions of the Birdville Independent School District in having a student speaker deliver an invocation prior to each of its monthly school board meetings. The invocation was given after another student led the Pledge of Allegiance and was normally some sort of prayer. The Fifth Circuit upheld the student-led invocation, arguing that the school board is “more like a legislature than a classroom,” distinguishing it from the public-school setting. The Court based its decision on the “legislative prayer” doctrine from Town of Greece, claiming that the Framers saw this form of prayer as merely a “benign acknowledgment of religion’s role in society.” The Court acknowledged that there may be children in the audience, but maintained that their presence did not transform the legislative nature of the school board meeting.
One year later, the Ninth Circuit split with its sister circuit in Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Chino Valley Unified School District (9th Cir. 2018).In this case, the school board permitted a prayer, usually led by a clergy member, to begin its opening sessions. The clergy members were invited from a list of eligible local religious leaders and were permitted to give the invocation on a first-come, first-serve basis. It also became common practice for board members to use these opening invocations as an opportunity to link student, teacher, and district accomplishments to Christianity by citing Bible verses and stressing the need for God in schools and society. The school board had a student representative who attended the meetings, and commonly invited students to highlight their various accomplishments. The Ninth Circuit ruled this opening invocation to be a violation of the Establishment Clause. The Court differentiated the permissible town board meeting in Town of Greece from this case in that the town board meeting was typically attended by mature adults who could express dissent, and had the option to remain or leave at will. “Instead, these prayers typically take place before groups of school children whose attendance is not truly voluntary and whose relationship to school district officials, including the Board, is not one of full parity.” The Court further argued that public schools lack the historical foundation that legislatures have in allowing opening prayer. The court reasoned that the school board should not be permitted to invoke such religious doctrine in their meetings.
Until this split is reconciled, school districts will continue to face uncertainty as to how to proceed with such a practice. As of now, it is not clear if the school board meeting is more like a school-sanctioned event or a legislative session, an important distinction in deciding the issue. Due to these important constitutional ramifications, the Supreme Court should intervene and clarify its ruling in Town of Greece. The conflict here is important because it calls into question the protections afforded by the First Amendment, a bedrock of our democratic society. Additionally, this concerns the imperative right of children in a public school to be free from religious indoctrination, allowing them to develop their beliefs and faculties unimpeded by religious pressure from public authority figures.