Students Can Open School Board Meetings with Prayers, Appellate Court Rules

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 …
New Orleans, LA

A federal appeals court ruled this week that a north Texas school district can continue its practice of student-led prayer that opens school board meetings.

A three-judge panel with the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans determined Monday that the student-led prayer at the Birdville Independent School District board meetings fell under an exception that allows legislative bodies to conduct prayers in government buildings, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.

Two years ago, Isaiah Smith, a 2014 Birdville High School graduate and a member of the American Humanist Association, sued the school district located in Haltom City, alleging that prayer at the school board meetings made him feel “violated and uncomfortable.”

According to the lawsuit, Smith argued that student-led prayers, many of which included references to “Jesus and Christ,” showed the school district “endorsing particular religious ideology over his and all others, as well as religion over non-religion,” the Star-Telegram noted.

Since 1997, Birdville ISD allowed two students to open board meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance and a short statement, often a prayer. The Fifth Circuit’s ruling acknowledged that Birdville ISD school board members have asked audience members to stand for the prayers.

“These polite requests, however, do not coerce prayer,” the ruling stated, also referencing both times the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor legislative bodies conducting prayers, in 1983 and 2014.

The appellate panel sided with Birdville ISD that “a school board is more like a legislature than a school classroom or event,” the Dallas Morning News reported. The judges also noted that when meetings that take place in an administrative building, most who attend are adults and they are free to enter or leave at any time.

Last November, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton led a 15-state coalition to uphold religious freedom in Birdville ISD. At the time, Paxton said in a press release: “The student expressions permitted by the Birdville ISD policy are the private speech of the students and thus are permissible under the First Amendment.”

He also stated: “Students should be taught that they are free to express their deeply held religious beliefs to their elected representatives in public forums without any restriction from the government.”

In August, a U.S. district court judge ruled against the American Humanist Association.

Regarding religious liberties, Paxton stepped in after a Killeen ISD principal forced a staffer to take down a Charlie Brown Christmas display that included a quote from the character Linus which had the word “Christ,” Breitbart Texas reported. The message of the quote was about the meaning of Christmas.

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