SCOTUS Preserves Ruling Allowing Student Prayer at Texas School Board Meetings

People bow their heads in prayer during a Sunday evening service at Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, on January 17, 2016. The young evangelical Christians at Liberty University in Virginia are facing a dilemma this election season: whether to follow in the footsteps of their parents and back …
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty

The U.S. Supreme Court left in place an appellate ruling that a North Texas school district can continue its practice of student-led prayer opening school board meetings.

On Monday, SCOTUS denied to review a case which asked them to decide if student-led prayer beginning board meetings in the Birdville Independent School District violated the U.S. Constitution. The petition, American Humanist Association v. Birdville Independent School District, argued the school district’s policy of inviting students to deliver statements that can include prayer before the start of a school board meeting violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Since 1997, Birdville ISD has allowed two students to open its monthly board meetings with one leading the the Pledge of Allegiance and the Texas Pledge and the other delivering a short statement, often a prayer. Two years ago, Isaiah Smith, a 2014 graduate of Birdville High and AHA member, sued the Haltom City-based school district, alleging that student-led prayer at school board meetings made him feel “violated and uncomfortable” and the practice signaled the school district favored “particular religious ideology over his and all others, as well as religion over nonreligion.”

The Supreme Court’s decision Monday to reject hearing the case upheld a March ruling by the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans that sided with Birdville ISD on the student-led prayer policy. Last year, the U.S. District Court in Fort Worth also ruled against AHA’s lawsuit.

Breitbart Texas reported that the Fifth Circuit determined the student-led invocations at the start of school board meetings fell under an exception that allowed legislative bodies to conduct prayer in government buildings and did not violate the Constitution’s banning of a government-established religion. The ruling referenced cases from 1983 and 2014 where the Supreme Court ruled in favor of legislative bodies conducting prayers. It noted that the school board holds its monthly meetings in the District Administration building and not in a classroom.

“Attendees are free to enter and leave at any time,” stated the Fifth Circuit, noting that meetings are open to the public and mainly attended by adults. Although students frequently attended for reasons including band and choir performances or award ceremonies, the ruling indicated no student representatives sit on the school board.

The appeals court acknowledged that Birdville ISD school board members have asked audience members to stand for the prayers. The ruling stated: “These polite requests, however, do not coerce prayer.”

In November 2016, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton led a 15-state coalition, urging the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold religious freedom in Birdville ISD. On Monday, Mark Rylander, communications director for the Texas AG’s office, told Breitbart Texas, they were pleased the Supreme Court left the Fifth Circuit decision in place.

“As we argued at the Fifth Circuit, students are free to express their deeply held religious beliefs at school board meetings,” said Rylander. “The Fifth Circuit is absolutely correct that the First Amendment protects students who choose to share their religious views with their elected representatives.”

Birdville ISD Superintendent Darrell Brown told Breitbart Texas by email: “In the face of litigation filed against the District and each of its trustees, Birdville Independent School District’s trustees believed it was important to fight to ensure the application of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution in a way that was legal, equitable, and defensible.”

Brown continued, “The speeches given by students at the Board meetings are their own – not something they are told to say. Occasionally, students will open the meeting with a prayer. We believe the students have the right to express themselves in this manner if they choose. District Judge John H. McBryde, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the District’s position on this issue. Birdville ISD has been vindicated by all levels of our judicial system.”

Conversely, AHA, which describes itself as “the leading progressive voice in America on behalf of humanists, atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers,” voiced disappointment with the outcome in a press release. Executive Director Roy Speckhardt contended student-led prayer was “unfair and inappropriate” and asserted the high court ignored “serious coercion” in a “school-controlled environment.”

Follow Merrill Hope, a member of the original Breitbart Texas team, on Twitter.

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