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School Board Prayer: The Third Circuit Rules

By: Andrew D.H. Rau

The constitutional debate surrounding student prayer in the public school setting has long been the subject of discussion in the federal courts. Now, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has issued an important decision on a related question—the right of a school board to open its meetings with prayer.

Third Circuit Ruling in Doe v. Indian River School District

The six-year old case began in Delaware’s Indian River School District when the two resident families challenged the district board’s custom of beginning public meetings with Christian-based prayers.

Indian River argued that the 1983 U.S Supreme Court case of Marsh v. Chambers protects “deliberative bodies” in choosing to open legislative and similar meetings with prayer. While the school district was successful at the trial level, the Third Circuit overturned the lower court decision on August 5, 2011, finding that as to public school systems, the 1994 Supreme Court decision in Lee v. Weisman controls. The Lee case held that the practice of having school administrators choose local religious leaders to lead graduation prayers is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

School Board Prayer a State Sponsored Religious Endorsement?

The new Third Circuit ruling looked to Lee and similar cases, finding that “the need to protect students from government coercion in the form of endorsed or sponsored religion is at the heart of the school prayer cases.” The Indian River School District argued that unlike a classroom setting or official graduation exercise, students and members of the public have the ability to come and go as they please during public board meetings. But the Third Circuit said it was not enough to allow audience members to leave during the meeting’s prayer component. The court found the prayer tradition to be a state-sponsored religious endorsement, and therefore an Establishment Clause violation.

This case does not appear to call in to question the continuing right of other legislative bodies, such as townships and boroughs, to begin a meeting with prayer. But as to public educational systems, Doe v. Indian River School District is the current rule in the Third Circuit which includes Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.

Indian River School District recently requested additional time to petition for re-hearing at the Third Circuit level. It remains to be seen whether the district will ultimately ask the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case at the highest level.

To read the full appellate decision, go to: http://www.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/101819p.pdf

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